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An Essay on Liberation 


BY HERBERT MARCUSE 


BEACON PRESS : BOSTON 



Beacon Press 
25 Beacon Street 
Boston, Massachusetts 02108-2892 
www.beacon.org 

Beacon Press books 
are published under the auspices of 
the Unitarian Universaiist Association of Congregations. 

© 1969 by Herbert Marcuse 
All rights reserved 

First digital-print edition 2000 

Library of Congress catalog card number: 69-15591 


International Standard Book Number: 0-8070-0595-9 



Acknowledgments 


Thanks again to my friends who read the manuscript and 
whose comments and criticism I heeded throughout: espe¬ 
cially Leo Lowenthal (University of California at Berke¬ 
ley), Arno J. Mayer (Princeton University), and Barrington 
Moore, Jr. (Harvard University). My wife discussed with 
me every part and problem of the manuscript. Without her 
cooperation, this essay would have appeared much sooner. 
I am grateful to her that it didn’t. 




Preface 


The growing opposition to the global dominion of cor¬ 
porate capitalism is confronted by the sustained power of 
this dominion: its economic and military hold in the four 
continents, its neocolonial empire, and, most important, its 
unshaken capacity to subject the majority of the underlying 
population to its overwhelming productivity and force. This 
global power keeps the socialist orbit on the defensive, all 
too costly not only in terms of military expenditures but 
also in the perpetuation of a repressive bureaucracy. The de¬ 
velopment of socialism thus continues to be deflected from 
its original goals, and the competitive coexistence with the 
West generates values and aspirations for which the Ameri¬ 
can standard of living serves as a model. 

Now, however, this threatening homogeneity has been 
loosening up, and an alternative is beginning to break into 
the repressive continuum. This alternative is not so much a 
different road to socialism as an emergence of different 
goals and values, different aspirations in the men and 
women who resist and deny the massive exploitative power 
of corporate capitalism even in its most comfortable and 
liberal realizations. The Great Refusal takes a variety of 
forms. 



viii Preface 

In Vietnam, in Cuba, in China, a revolution is being de¬ 
fended and driven forward which struggles to eschew the 
bureaucratic administration of socialism. The guerrilla 
forces in Latin America seem to be animated by that same 
subversive impulse: liberation. At the same time, the appar¬ 
ently impregnable economic fortress of corporate capital¬ 
ism shows signs of mounting strain: it seems that even the 
United States cannot indefinitely deliver its goods — guns 
and butter, napalm and color tv. The ghetto populations 
may well become the first mass basis of revolt (though not 
of revolution). The student opposition is spreading in the 
old socialist as well as capitalist countries. In France, it has 
for the first time challenged the full force of the regime and 
recaptured, for a short moment, the libertarian power of the 
red and the black flags; moreover, it has demonstrated the 
prospects for an enlarged basis. The temporary suppression 
of the rebellion will not reverse the trend. 

None of these forces is the alternative. However, they 
outline, in very different dimensions, the limits of the estab¬ 
lished societies, of their power of containment. When these 
limits are reached, the Establishment may initiate a new 
order of totalitarian suppression. But beyond these limits, 
there is also the space, both physical and mental, for build¬ 
ing a realm of freedom which is not that of the present: 
liberation also from the liberties of exploitative order — a 
liberation which must precede the construction of a free 
society, one which necessitates an historical break with the 
past and the present. 

It would be irresponsible to overrate the present chances 
of these forces (this essay will stress the obstacles and "de¬ 
lays”), but the facts are there, facts which are not only the 
symbols but also the embodiments of hope. They confront 
the critical theory of society with the task of reexamining 



Preface ix 

the prospects for the emergence of a socialist society quali¬ 
tatively different from existing societies, the task of redefin¬ 
ing socialism and its preconditions. 


In the following chapters, I attempt to develop some ideas 
first submitted in Eros and Civilization and in One-Dimen¬ 
sional Man , then further discussed in “Repressive Toler¬ 
ance” and in lectures delivered in recent years, mostly to 
student audiences in the United States and in Europe. 
This essay was written before the events of May and June 
1968 in France. I have merely added some footnotes in the 
way of documentation. The coincidence between some of 
the ideas suggested in my essay, and those formulated by 
the young militants was to me striking. The radical utopian 
character of their demands far surpasses the hypotheses 
of my essay; and yet, these demands were developed and 
formulated in the course of action itself; they are expres¬ 
sions of concrete political practice. The militants have in¬ 
validated the concept of “utopia” — they have denounced 
a vicious ideology. No matter whether their action was 
a revolt or an abortive revolution, it is a turning point. In 
proclaiming the “permanent challenge” (la contestation 
permanente), the “permanent education,” the Great Re¬ 
fusal, they recognize the mark of social repression, even in 
the most sublime manifestations of traditional culture, 
even in the most spectacular manifestations of technical 
progress. They have again raised a specter (and this time a 
specter which haunts not only the bourgeoisie but all ex¬ 
ploitative bureaucracies): the specter of a revolution which 
subordinates the development of productive forces and 
higher standards of living to the requirements of creating 
solidarity for the human species, for abolishing poverty and 



x Preface 

misery beyond all national frontiers and spheres of interest, 
for the attainment of peace. In one word: they have taken 
the idea of revolution out of the continuum of repression 
and placed it into its authentic dimension: that of liberation. 

The young militants know or sense that what is at stake 
is simply their life, the life of human beings which has 
become a plaything in the hands of politicians and mana¬ 
gers and generals. The rebels want to take it out of these 
hands and make it worth living; they realize that this is still 
possible today, and that the attainment of this goal neces¬ 
sitates a struggle which can no longer be contained by the 
rules and regulations of a pseudo-democracy in a Free Or¬ 
wellian World. To them I dedicate this essay. 



Introduction 3 
A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 7 
n. The New Sensibility 23 
hi. Subverting Forces — in Transition 49 

iv. Solidarity 79 




An Essay on Liberation 




Introduction 


u p to now, it has been one of the principal tenets of the 
critical theory of society (and particularly Marxian theory) 
to refrain from what might be reasonably called utopian 
speculation. Social theory is supposed to analyze existing 
societies in the light of their own functions and capabilities 
and to identify demonstrable tendencies (if any) which 
might lead beyond the existing state of affairs. By logical 
inference from the prevailing conditions and institutions, 
critical theory may also be able to determine the basic in¬ 
stitutional changes which are the prerequisites for the 
transition to a higher stage of development: “higher” in the 
sense of a more rational and equitable use of resources, 
minimization of destructive conflicts, and enlargement of 
the realm of freedom. But beyond these limits, critical the¬ 
ory did not venture for fear of losing its scientific character. 

I believe that this restrictive conception must be revised, 
and that the revision is suggested, and even necessitated, 
by the actual evolution of contemporary societies. The dy¬ 
namic of their productivity deprives “utopia” of its tradi¬ 
tional unreal content: what is denounced as “utopian” is 
no longer that which has “no place” and cannot have any 



4 An Essay on Liberation 

place in the historical universe, but rather that which is 
blocked from coming about by the power of the established 
societies. 

Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and 
technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: 
the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale 
would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very fore¬ 
seeable future. But we know now that neither their rational 
use nor — and this is decisive — their collective control by 
the “immediate producers” (the workers) would by itself 
eliminate domination and exploitation: a bureaucratic wel¬ 
fare state would still be a state of repression which would 
continue even into the “second phase of socialism,” when 
each is to receive “according to his needs.” 

What is now at stake are the needs themselves. At this 
stage, the question is no longer: how can the individual 
satisfy his own needs without hurting others, but rather: 
how can he satisfy his needs without hurting himself, with¬ 
out reproducing, through his aspirations and satisfactions, 
his dependence on an exploitative apparatus which, in sat¬ 
isfying his needs, perpetuates his servitude? The advent 
of a free society would be characterized by the fact that 
the growth of well-being turns into an essentially new qual¬ 
ity of life. This qualitative change must occur in the needs, 
in the infrastructure of man (itself a dimension of the in¬ 
frastructure of society): the new direction, the new institu¬ 
tions and relationships of production, must express the 
ascent of needs and satisfactions very different from and 
even antagonistic to those prevalent in the exploitative so¬ 
cieties. Such a change would constitute the instinctual basis 
for freedom which the long history of class society has 
blocked. Freedom would become the environment of an 
organism which is no longer capable of adapting to the 



Introduction 


5 

competitive performances required for well-being under 
domination, no longer capable of tolerating the aggressive¬ 
ness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life. 
The rebellion would then have taken root in the very na¬ 
ture, the “biology” of the individual; and on these new 
grounds, the rebels would redefine the objectives and the 
strategy of the political struggle, in which alone the con¬ 
crete goals of liberation can be determined. 

Is such a change in the “nature” of man conceivable? I 
believe so, because technical progress has reached a stage 
in which reality no longer need be defined by the debilitat¬ 
ing competition for social survival and advancement. The 
more these technical capacities outgrow the framework of 
exploitation within which they continue to be confined and 
abused, the more they propel the drives and aspirations of 
men to a point at which the necessities of life cease to de¬ 
mand the aggressive performances of “earning a living,” 
and the “non-necessary” becomes a vital need. This 
proposition, which is central in Marxian theory, is familiar 
enough, and the managers and publicists of corporate capi¬ 
talism are well aware of its meaning; they are prepared to 
“contain” its dangerous consequences. The radical opposi¬ 
tion also is aware of these prospects, but the critical 
theory which is to guide political practice still lags behind. 
Marx and Engels refrained from developing concrete con¬ 
cepts of the possible forms of freedom in a socialist society; 
today, such restraint no longer seems justified. The growth 
of the productive forces suggests possibilities of human 
liberty very different from, and beyond those envisaged 
at the earlier stage. Moreover, these real possibilities sug¬ 
gest that the gap which separates a free society from 
the existing societies would be wider and deeper precisely 
to the degree to which the repressive power and produc- 



6 An Essay on Liberation 

tivity of the latter shape man and his environment in their 
image and interest. 

For the world of human freedom cannot be built by the 
established societies, no matter how much they may stream¬ 
line and rationalize their dominion. Their class structure, 
and the perfected controls required to sustain it, generate 
needs, satisfactions, and values which reproduce the servi¬ 
tude of the human existence. This “voluntary” servitude 
(voluntary inasmuch as it is introjected into the individ¬ 
uals ), which justifies the benevolent masters, can be broken 
only through a political practice which reaches the roots of 
containment and contentment in the infrastructure of man, 
a political practice of methodical disengagement from and 
refusal of the Establishment, aiming at a radical transvalua¬ 
tion of values. Such a practice involves a break with the 
familiar, the routine ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, under¬ 
standing things so that the organism may become receptive 
to the potential forms of a nonaggressive, nonexploitative 
world. 

No matter how remote from these notions the rebellion 
may be, no matter how destructive and self-destructive it 
may appear, no matter how great the distance between 
the middle-class revolt in the metropoles and the life-and- 
death struggle of the wretched of the earth — common to 
them is the depth of the Refusal. It makes them reject the 
rules of the game that is rigged against them, the ancient 
strategy of patience and persuasion, the reliance on the 
Good Will in the Establishment, its false and immoral com¬ 
forts, its cruel affluence. 



I. A Biological Foundation 
for Socialism? 


In the affluent society, capitalism comes into its own. 
The two mainsprings of its dynamic — the escalation of 
commodity production and productive exploitation — join 
and permeate all dimensions of private and public exist¬ 
ence. The available material and intellectual resources 
(the potential of liberation) have so much outgrown the 
established institutions that only the systematic increase in 
waste, destruction, and management keeps the system go¬ 
ing. The opposition which escapes suppression by the po¬ 
lice, the courts, the representatives of the people, and the 
people themselves, finds expression in the diffused rebellion 
among the youth and the intelligentsia, and in the daily 
struggle of the persecuted minorities. The armed class 
struggle is waged outside: by the wretched of the earth 
who fight the affluent monster. 

The critical analysis of this society calls for new cate¬ 
gories: moral, political, aesthetic. I shall try to develop them 
in the course of the discussion. The category of obscenity 
will serve as an introduction. 

This society is obscene in producing and indecently ex¬ 
posing a stifling abundance of wares while depriving its vic¬ 
tims abroad of the necessities of life; obscene in stuffing 



8 


An Essay on Liberation 

itself and its garbage cans while poisoning and burning the 
scarce foodstuffs in the fields of its aggression; obscene in 
the words and smiles of its politicians and entertainers; in 
its prayers, in its ignorance, and in the wisdom of its kept 
intellectuals. 

Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the 
Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to 
expressions of its own morality but to those of another. Ob¬ 
scene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her 
pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his 
medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the 
ritual of the Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary 
of the Church that war is necessary for peace. Linguistic 
therapy — that is, the effort to free words (and thereby 
concepts) from the all but total distortion of their meanings 
by the Establishment — demands the transfer of moral 
standards (and of their validation) from the Establishment 
to the revolt against it. Similarly, the sociological and politi¬ 
cal vocabulary must be radically reshaped: it must be 
stripped of its false neutrality; it must be methodically and 
provocatively “moralized” in terms of the Refusal. Morality 
is not necessarily and not primarily ideological. In the face 
of an amoral society, it becomes a political weapon, an 
effective force which drives people to burn their draft 
cards, to ridicule national leaders, to demonstrate in the 
streets, and to unfold signs saying, “Thou shalt not kill,” in 
the nation’s churches. 

The reaction to obscenity is shame, usually interpreted 
as the physiological manifestation of the sense of guilt 
accompanying the transgression of a taboo. The obscene 
exposures of the affluent society normally provoke neither 
shame nor a sense of guilt, although this society violates 
some of the most fundamental moral taboos of civilization. 



A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 9 

The term obscenity belongs to the sexual sphere; shame and 
the sense of guilt arise in the Oedipal situation. If in this 
respect social morality is rooted in sexual morality, then the 
shamelessness of the affluent society and its effective repres¬ 
sion of the sense of guilt would indicate a decline of shame 
and guilt feeling in the sexual sphere. And indeed, the ex¬ 
posure of the (for all practical purposes) naked body is 
permitted and even encouraged, and the taboos on pre- and 
extramarital intercourse are considerably relaxed. Thus we 
are faced with the contradiction that the liberalization of 
sexuality provides an instinctual basis for the repressive and 
aggressive power of the affluent society. 

This contradiction can be resolved if we understand that 
the liberalization of the Establishment s own morality takes 
place within the framework of effective controls; kept 
within this framework, the liberalization strengthens the co¬ 
hesion of the whole. The relaxation of taboos alleviates the 
sense of guilt and binds (though with considerable am¬ 
bivalence) the “free” individuals libidinally to the institu¬ 
tionalized fathers. They are powerful but also tolerant 
fathers, whose management of the nation and its economy 
delivers and protects the liberties of the citizens. On the 
other hand, if the violation of taboos transcends the sexual 
sphere and leads to refusal and rebellion, the sense of guilt 
is not alleviated and repressed but rather transferred: not 
we, but the fathers, are guilty; they are not tolerant but 
false; they want to redeem their own guilt by making us, the 
sons, guilty; they have created a world of hypocrisy and 
violence in which we do not wish to live. Instinctual revolt 
turns into political rebellion, and against this union, the 
Establishment mobilizes its full force. 

This union provokes such a response because it reveals 
the prospective scope of social change at this stage of de- 



10 


An Essay on Liberation 

velopment, the extent to which the radical political practice 
involves a cultural subversion. The refusal with which the 
opposition confronts the existing society is affirmative in 
that it envisages a new culture which fulfills the humanistic 
promises betrayed by the old culture. Political radicalism 
thus implies moral radicalism: the emergence of a morality 
which might precondition man for freedom. This radicalism 
activates the elementary, organic foundation of morality in 
the human being. Prior to all ethical behavior in accordance 
with specific social standards, prior to all ideological ex¬ 
pression, morality is a “disposition” of the organism, per¬ 
haps rooted in the erotic drive to counter aggressiveness, 
to create and preserve “ever greater unities” of life. We 
would then have, this side of all “values,” an instinctual 
foundation for solidarity among human beings — a solidar¬ 
ity which has been effectively repressed in line with the 
requirements of class society but which now appears as a 
precondition for liberation. 

To the degree to which this foundation is itself historical 
and the malleability of “human nature” reaches into the 
depth of man’s instinctual structure, changes in morality 
may ‘“sink down” into the “biological” 1 dimension and 

1 I use the terms “biological” and “biology” not in the sense of the sci¬ 
entific discipline, but in order to designate the process and the dimension 
in which inclinations, behavior patterns, and aspirations become vital 
needs which, if not satisfied, would cause dysfunction of the organism. 
Conversely, socially induced needs and aspirations may result in a more 
pleasurable organic behavior. If biological needs are defined as those 
which must be satisfied and for which no adequate substitute can be 
provided, certain cultural needs can “sink down” into the biology of man. 
We could then speak, for example, of the biological need of freedom, or 
of some aesthetic needs as having taken root in the organic structure of 
man, in his “nature,” or rather “second nature.” This usage of the term 
“biological” does not imply or assume anything as to the way in which 
needs are physiologically expressed and transmitted. 



11 


A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 

modify organic behavior. Once a specific morality is firmly 
established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only intro- 
jected — it also operates as a norm of “organic” behavior: 
the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ig¬ 
nores” and repels others in accord with the introjected 
morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function 
of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In 
this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of con¬ 
sciousness and ideology, patterns of behavior and aspira¬ 
tion as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the re¬ 
volt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown 
patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self- 
defeating. 

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of cor¬ 
porate capitalism have created a second nature of man 
which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commod¬ 
ity form. The need for possessing, consuming, handling, 
and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, 
engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using 
these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, 
has become a “biological” need in the sense just defined. 
The second nature of man thus militates against any change 
that would disrupt and perhaps even abolish this depend¬ 
ence of man on a market ever more densely filled with 
merchandise — abolish his existence as a consumer con¬ 
suming himself in buying and selling. The needs generated 
by this system are thus eminently stabilizing, conservative 
needs: the counterrevolution anchored in the instinctual 
structure. 

The market has always been one of exploitation and 
thereby of domination, insuring the class structure of so¬ 
ciety. However, the productive process of advanced capi¬ 
talism has altered the form of domination: the technologi- 



12 


An Essay on Liberation 

cal veil covers the brute presence and the operation of the 
class interest in the merchandise. Is it still necessary to 
state that not technology, not technique, not the machine 
are the engines of repression, but the presence, in them, 
of the masters who determine their number, their life span, 
their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it 
still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the 
great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and 
restriction in the repressive society which makes them into 
vehicles of domination? 

Not the automobile is repressive, not the television set 
is repressive, not the household gadgets are repressive, but 
the automobile, the television, the gadgets which, produced 
in accordance with the requirements of profitable ex¬ 
change, have become part and parcel of the people's own 
existence, own “actualization.” Thus they have to buy part 
and parcel of their own existence on the market; this ex¬ 
istence is the realization of capital. The naked class interest 
builds the unsafe and obsolescent automobiles, and through 
them promotes destructive energy; the class interest em¬ 
ploys the mass media for the advertising of violence and 
stupidity, for the creation of captive audiences. In doing 
so, the masters only obey the demand of the public, of the 
masses; the famous law of supply and demand establishes 
the harmony between the rulers and the ruled. This har¬ 
mony is indeed preestablished to the degree to which the 
masters have created the public which asks for their wares, 
and asks for them more insistently if it can release, in and 
through the wares, its frustration and the aggressiveness re¬ 
sulting from this frustration. Self-determination, the au¬ 
tonomy of the individual, asserts itself in the right to race 
his automobile, to handle his power tools, to buy a gun, to 
communicate to mass audiences his opinion, no matter how 



A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 13 

ignorant, how aggressive, it may be. Organized capitalism 
has sublimated and turned to socially productive use frus¬ 
tration and primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented 
scale — unprecedented not in terms of the quantity of vio¬ 
lence but rather in terms of its capacity to produce long- 
range contentment and satisfaction, to reproduce the “vol¬ 
untary servitude.” To be sure, frustration, unhappiness, and 
sickness remain the basis of this sublimation, but the pro¬ 
ductivity and the brute power of the system still keep 
the basis well under control. The achievements justify the 
system of domination. The established values become the 
people’s own values: adaptation turns into spontaneity, 
autonomy; and the choice between social necessities ap¬ 
pears as freedom. In this sense, the continuing exploitation 
is not only hidden behind the technological veil, but actu¬ 
ally “transfigured.” The capitalist production relations are 
responsible not only for the servitude and toil but also for 
the greater happiness and fun available to the majority of 
the population — and they deliver more goods than before. 

Neither its vastly increased capacity to produce the com¬ 
modities of satisfaction nor the peaceful management of 
class conflicts rendered possible by this capacity cancels the 
essential features of capitalism, namely, the private ap¬ 
propriation of surplus value (steered but not abolished by 
government intervention) and its realization in the cor¬ 
porate interest. Capitalism reproduces itself by transform¬ 
ing itself, and this transformation is mainly in the improve¬ 
ment of exploitation. Do exploitation and domination cease 
to be what they are and what they do to man if they are 
no longer suffered, if they are “compensated” by previously 
unknown comforts? Does labor cease to be debilitating if 
mental energy increasingly replaces physical energy in 
producing the goods and services which sustain a system 



14 An Essay on Liberation 

that makes hell of large areas of the globe? An affirmative 
answer would justify any form of oppression which keeps 
the populace calm and content; while a negative answer 
would deprive the individual of being the judge of his own 
happiness. 

The notion that happiness is an objective condition which 
demands more than subjective feelings has been effectively 
obscured; its validity depends on the real solidarity of the 
species “man,” which a society divided into antagonistic 
classes and nations cannot achieve. As long as this is the 
history of mankind, the “state of nature,” no matter how re¬ 
fined, prevails: a civilized bellum omnium contra omnes, 
in which the happiness of the ones must coexist with the 
suffering of the others. The First International was the last 
attempt to realize the solidarity of the species by grounding 
it in that social class in which the subjective and objective 
interest, the particular and the universal, coincided (the 
International is the late concretization of the abstract philo¬ 
sophical concept of “man as man,” human being, “Gat- 
tungswesen,” which plays such a decisive role in Marx’ and 
Engels’ early writings). Then, the Spanish civil war aroused 
this solidarity, which is the driving power of liberation, in 
the unforgettable, hopeless fight of a tiny minority against 
the combined forces of fascist and liberal capitalism. Here, 
in the international brigades which, with their poor weap¬ 
ons, withstood overwhelming technical superiority, was 
the union of young intellectuals and workers — the union 
which has become the desperate goal of today’s radical op¬ 
position. 

Attainment of this goal is thwarted by the integration of 
the organized (and not only the organized) laboring class 
into the system of advanced capitalism. Under its impact, 
the distinction between the real and the immediate inter- 



A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 15 

est of the exploited has collapsed. This distinction, far from 
being an abstract idea, was guiding the strategy of the 
Marxist movements; it expressed the necessity transcending 
the economic struggle of the laboring classes, to extend 
wage demands and demands for the improvement of work¬ 
ing conditions to the political arena, to drive the class strug¬ 
gle to the point at which the system itself would be at stake, 
to make foreign as well as domestic policy, the national as 
well as the class interest, the target of this struggle. 
The real interest, the attainment of conditions in which 
man could shape his own life, was that of no longer sub¬ 
ordinating his life to the requirements of profitable produc¬ 
tion, to an apparatus controlled by forces beyond his control. 
And the attainment of such conditions meant the abolition 
of capitalism. 

It is not simply the higher standard of living, the illusory 
bridging of the consumer gap between the rulers and the 
ruled, which has obscured the distinction between the real 
and the immediate interest of the ruled. Marxian theory 
soon recognized that impoverishment does not necessarily 
provide the soil for revolution, that a highly developed con¬ 
sciousness and imagination may generate a vital need for 
radical change in advanced material conditions. The power 
of corporate capitalism has stifled the emergence of such 
a consciousness and imagination; its mass media have ad¬ 
justed the rational and emotional faculties to its market and 
its policies and steered them to defense of its dominion. The 
narrowing of the consumption gap has rendered possible 
the mental and instinctual coordination of the laboring 
classes: the majority of organized labor shares the stabiliz¬ 
ing, counterrevolutionary needs of the middle classes, as 
evidenced by their behavior as consumers of the material 
and cultural merchandise, by their emotional revulsion 



16 An Essay on Liberation 

against the nonconformist intelligentsia. Conversely, where 
the consumer gap is still wide, where the capitalist culture 
has not yet reached into every house or hut, the system of 
stabilizing needs has its limits; the glaring contrast be¬ 
tween the privileged class and the exploited leads to a 
radicalization of the underprivileged. This is the case of 
the ghetto population and the unemployed in the United 
States; this is also the case of the laboring classes in the 
more backward capitalist countries. 2 

By virtue of its basic position in the production process, 
by virtue of its numerical weight and the weight of exploi¬ 
tation, the working class is still the historical agent of revo¬ 
lution; by virtue of its sharing the stabilizing needs of the 
system, it has become a conservative, even counterrevolu¬ 
tionary force. Objectively, “in-itself,” labor still is the po¬ 
tentially revolutionary class; subjectively, “for-itself,” it is 
not. This theoretical conception has concrete significance in 
the prevailing situation, in which the working class may 
help to circumscribe the scope and the targets of political 
practice. 

In the advanced capitalist countries, the radicalization 
of the working classes is counteracted by a socially engi¬ 
neered arrest of consciousness, and by the development and 
satisfaction of needs which perpetuate the servitude of the 
exploited. A vested interest in the existing system is thus 
fostered in the instinctual structure of the exploited, and 
the rupture with the continuum of repression — a neces¬ 
sary precondition of liberation — does not occur. It follows 
that the radical change which is to transform the existing 
society into a free society must reach into a dimension of 
the human existence hardly considered in Marxian theory 
— the “biological” dimension in which the vital, imperative 

2 See pp. 53 f. below for further discussion. 



A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 17 

needs and satisfactions of man assert themselves. Inasmuch 
as these needs and satisfactions reproduce a life in servi¬ 
tude, liberation presupposes changes in this biological di¬ 
mension, that is to say, different instinctual needs, different 
reactions of the body as well as the mind. 

The qualitative difference between the existing societies 
and a free society affects all needs and satisfactions beyond 
the animal level, that is to say, all those which are essential 
to the human species, man as rational animal. All these 
needs and satisfactions are permeated with the exigencies 
of profit and exploitation. The entire realm of competitive 
performances and standardized fun, all the symbols of 
status, prestige, power, of advertised virility and charm, of 
commercialized beauty — this entire realm kills in its citi¬ 
zens the very disposition, the organs, for the alternative: 
freedom without exploitation. 

Triumph and end of introjection: the stage where the 
people cannot reject the system of domination without re¬ 
jecting themselves, their own repressive instinctual needs 
and values. We would have to conclude that liberation 
would mean subversion against the will and against the 
prevailing interests of the great majority of the people. In 
this false identification of social and individual needs, in 
this deep-rooted, “organic” adaptation of the people to a 
terrible but profitably functioning society, lie the limits of 
democratic persuasion and evolution. On the overcoming 
of these limits depends the establishment of democracy. 3 

It is precisely this excessive adaptability of the human 
organism which propels the perpetuation and extension of 
the commodity form and, with it, the perpetuation and ex¬ 
tension of the social controls over behavior and satisfaction. 

3 For further discussion see pp. 64 f. below. 



18 An Essay on Liberation 

The ever-increasing complexity of the social structure 
will make some form of regimentation unavoidable, free¬ 
dom and privacy may come to constitute antisocial luxuries 
and their attainment to involve real hardships. In conse¬ 
quence, there may emerge by selection a stock of human 
beings suited genetically to accept as a matter of course a 
regimented and sheltered way of life in a teeming and pol¬ 
luted world, from which all wilderness and fantasy of 
nature will have disappeared. The domesticated farm ani¬ 
mal and the laboratory rodent on a controlled regimen in a 
controlled environment will then become true models for 
the study of man. 

Thus, it is apparent that food, natural resources, 
supplies of power, and other elements involved in the op¬ 
eration of the body machine and of the individual estab¬ 
lishment are not the only factors to be considered in de¬ 
termining the optimum number of people that can live on 
earth. Just as important for maintaining the human quali¬ 
ties of life is an environment in which it is possible to sat¬ 
isfy the longing for quiet, privacy, independence, initia¬ 
tive, and some open space. . . , 4 

Capitalist progress thus not only reduces the environment 
of freedom, the “open space” of the human existence, but 
also the “longing,” the need for such an environment. And 
in doing so, quantitative progress militates against quali¬ 
tative change even if the institutional barriers against radi¬ 
cal education and action are surmounted. This is the vicious 
circle: the rupture with the self-propelling conservative 
continuum of needs must precede the revolution which 
is to usher in a free society, but such rupture itself can be 
envisaged only in a revolution — a revolution which would 
be driven by the vital need to be freed from the admin- 

4 Rene Dubos, Man Adapting (New Haven and London: Yale Uni¬ 
versity Press, 1965), pp. 313-314- 



A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 19 

istered comforts and the destructive productivity of the 
exploitative society, freed from smooth heteronomy, a revo¬ 
lution which, by virtue of this “biological” foundation, 
would have the chance of turning quantitative technical 
progress into qualitatively different ways of life — precisely 
because it would be a revolution occurring at a high level 
of material and intellectual development, one which would 
enable man to conquer scarcity and poverty. If this idea of 
a radical transformation is to be more than idle speculation, 
it must have an objective foundation in the production 
process of advanced industrial society , 5 in its technical 
capabilities and their use. 

For freedom indeed depends largely on technical prog¬ 
ress, on the advancement of science. But this fact easily 
obscures the essential precondition: in order to become 
vehicles of freedom, science and technology would have 
to change their present direction and goals; they would have 
to be reconstructed in accord with a new sensibility — the 
demands of the life instincts. Then one could speak of a 
technology of liberation, product of a scientific imagina¬ 
tion free to project and design the forms of a human uni¬ 
verse without exploitation and toil. But this g aya scienza 
is conceivable only after the historical break in the con¬ 
tinuum of domination — as expressive of the needs of a 
new type of man . 6 

5 I shall discuss the existence of such a foundation in Chapter III. 

6 The critique of the prevailing scientific establishment as ideological, 
and the idea of a science which has really come into its own, was ex¬ 
pressed in a manifesto issued by the militant students of Paris in May 
1968 as follows: 

“Refusons aussi la division de la science et de Videologie, la plus pemi- 
cieuse de toutes puisqu’elle est secretee par nous-memes. Nous ne voulons 
pas plus etre gouvernes passivement par les lois de la science que par 
celle de Teconomie ou les imperatifs de la technique. La science est un 



20 


An Essay on Liberation 

The idea of a new type of man as the member (though 
not as the builder) of a socialist society appears in Marx 
and Engels in the concept of the “all-round individual,” 
free to engage in the most varying activities. In the socialist 
society corresponding to this idea, the free development of 
individual faculties would replace the subjection of the in¬ 
dividual to the division of labor. But no matter what activi¬ 
ties the all-round individual would choose, they would be 
activities which are bound to lose the quality of freedom if 
exercised “en masse” — and they would be “en masse,” for 
even the most authentic socialist society would inherit the 
population growth and the mass basis of advanced capital¬ 
ism. The early Marxian example of the free individuals al¬ 
ternating between hunting, fishing, criticizing, and so on, 
had a joking-ironical sound from the beginning, indicative 
of the impossibility anticipating the ways in which lib¬ 
erated human beings would use their freedom. However, 
the embarrassingly ridiculous sound may also indicate the 
degree to which this vision has become obsolete and per¬ 
tains to a stage of the development of the productive forces 
which has been surpassed. The later Marxian concept im¬ 
plies the continued separation between the realm of neces¬ 
sity and the realm of freedom, between labor and leisure — 
not only in time, but also in such a manner that the same 
subject lives a different life in the two realms. According to 
this Marxian conception, the realm of necessity would con- 

art dont Toriginalite est devoir des applications possibles hors delle- 
meme. 

“Elle ne peut eependant etre normative que pour elle-meme. Refusons 
son imperialisme mystifiant, caution de tous les abus et reculs, y compris 
en son sein, et remplagons-le par un choix reel parmi les possibles qu'elle 
nous off re” (Quelle Universite? Quelle Societe? Textes reunis par le 
centre de regroupement des informations universitaires. Paris: Editions 
du Seuil, 1968, p. 148). 



A Biological Foundation for Socialism? 21 

tinue under socialism to such an extent that real human 
freedom would prevail only outside the entire sphere of 
socially necessary labor. Marx rejects the idea that work can 
ever become play. 7 Alienation would be reduced with the 
progressive reduction of the working day, but the latter 
would remain a day of unfreedom, rational but not free. 
However, the development of the productive forces beyond 
their capitalist organization suggests the possibility of free¬ 
dom within the realm of necessity. The quantitative reduc¬ 
tion of necessary labor could turn into quality (freedom), 
not in proportion to the reduction but rather to the trans¬ 
formation of the working day, a transformation in which 
the stupefying, enervating, pseudo-automatic jobs of capi¬ 
talist progress would be abolished. But the construction of 
such a society presupposes a type of man with a different 
sensitivity as well as consciousness: men who would speak a 
different language, have different gestures, follow different 
impulses; men who have developed an instinctual barrier 
against cruelty, brutality, ugliness. Such an instinctual 
transformation is conceivable as a factor of social change 
only if it enters the social division of labor, the production 
relations themselves. They would be shaped by men and 
women who have the good conscience of being human, ten¬ 
der, sensuous, who are no longer ashamed of themselves — 
for “the token of freedom attained, that is, no longer being 
ashamed of ourselves (Nietzsche, Die Frohliche Wissen- 
schaft, Book III, 275). The imagination of such men and 
women would fashion their reason and tend to make the 
process of production a process of creation. This is the 
utopian concept of socialism which envisages the ingression 

7 For a far more “utopian” conception see the by now familiar passage 
in the Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie (Berlin; Dietz, 
i953)> PP- 59bff., and p. 49 below. 



22 


An Essay on Liberation 

of freedom into the realm of necessity, and the union be¬ 
tween causality by necessity and causality by freedom. 
The first would mean passing from Marx to Fourier; the 
second from realism to surrealism. 8 

A utopian conception? It has been the great, real, tran¬ 
scending force, the “idee neuve,” in the first powerful rebel¬ 
lion against the whole of the existing society, the rebellion 
for the total transvaluation of values, for qualitatively dif¬ 
ferent ways of life: the May rebellion in France. The graffiti 
of the “jeunesse en colere” joined Karl Marx and Andre 
Breton; the slogan “Vimagination au pouvoir’ went well 
with “les comites ( soviets) partout”; the piano with the jazz 
player stood well between the barricades; the red flag well 
fitted the statue of the author of Les Miserables; and strik¬ 
ing students in Toulouse demanded the revival of the lan¬ 
guage of the Troubadours, the Albigensians. The new sensi¬ 
bility has become a political force. It crosses the frontier 
between the capitalist and the communist orbit; it is con¬ 
tagious because the atmosphere, the climate of the estab¬ 
lished societies, carries the virus. 

8 See p. 31 below. 



II. The New Sensibility 


The new sensibility has become a political factor. This 
event, which may well indicate a turning point in the evolu¬ 
tion of contemporary societies, demands that critical theory 
incorporate the new dimension into its concepts, project its 
implications for the possible construction of a free society. 
Such a society presupposes throughout the achievements 
of the existing societies, especially their scientific and tech¬ 
nical achievements. Released from their service in the 
cause of exploitation, they could be mobilized for the 
global elimination of poverty and toil. True, this redirec¬ 
tion of the intellectual and material production already pre¬ 
supposes the revolution in the capitalist world; the theoreti¬ 
cal projection seems to be fatally premature — were it not 
for the fact that the awareness of the transcendent possi¬ 
bilities of freedom must become a driving power in the con¬ 
sciousness and the imagination which prepare the soil for 
this revolution. The latter will be essentially different, and 
effective, precisely to the degree to which it is carried for¬ 
ward by this power. 

The new sensibility, which expresses the ascent of the 
life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt, would foster, on 
a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice 



24 An Essay on Liberation 

and misery and would shape the further evolution of the 
“standard of living.’’ The life instincts would find rational 
expression (sublimation) in planning the distribution of 
the socially necessary labor time within and among the 
various branches of production, thus setting priorities of 
goals and choices: not only what to produce but also the 
“form” of the product. The liberated consciousness would 
promote the development of a science and technology free 
to discover and realize the possibilities of things and men in 
the protection and gratification of life, playing with the 
potentialities of form and matter for the attainment of this 
goal. Technique would then tend to become art, and art 
would tend to form reality: the opposition between imagi¬ 
nation and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and 
scientific thought, would be invalidated. Emergence of a 
new Reality Principle: under which a new sensibility and a 
desublimated scientific intelligence would combine in the 
creation of an aesthetic ethos. 

The term “aesthetic,” in its dual connotation of “pertain¬ 
ing to the senses” and “pertaining to art,” may serve to 
designate the quality of the productive-creative process in 
an environment of freedom. Technique, assuming the fea¬ 
tures of art, would translate subjective sensibility into ob¬ 
jective form, into reality. This would be the sensibil¬ 
ity of men and women who do not have to be ashamed 
of themselves anymore because they have overcome their 
sense of guilt: they have learned not to identify themselves 
with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and for¬ 
gotten the Auschwitzs and Vietnams of history, the torture 
chambers of all the secular and ecclesiastical inquisitions 
and interrogations, the ghettos and the monumental tem¬ 
ples of the corporations, and who have worshiped the 
higher culture of this reality. If and when men and women 



The New Sensibility 25 

act and think free from this identification, they will have 
broken the chain which linked the fathers and the sons 
from generation to generation. They will not have re¬ 
deemed the crimes against humanity, but they will have be¬ 
come free to stop them and to prevent their recommence¬ 
ment. Chance of reaching the point of no return to the past: 
if and when the causes are eliminated which have made 
the history of mankind the history of domination and servi¬ 
tude. These causes are economic-political, but since they 
have shaped the very instincts and needs of men, no eco¬ 
nomic and political changes will bring this historical con¬ 
tinuum to a stop unless they are carried through by men 
who are physiologically and psychologically able to ex¬ 
perience things, and each other, outside the context of vio¬ 
lence and exploitation. 

The new sensibility has become, by this very token, 
praxis: it emerges in the struggle against violence and ex¬ 
ploitation where this struggle is waged for essentially new 
ways and forms of life: negation of the entire Establish¬ 
ment, its morality, culture; affirmation of the right to build 
a society in which the abolition of poverty and toil termi¬ 
nates in a universe where the sensuous, the playful, the 
calm, and the beautiful become forms of existence and 
thereby the Form of the society itself. 

The aesthetic as the possible Form of a free society ap¬ 
pears at that stage of development where the intellectual 
and material resources for the conquest of scarcity are 
available, where previously progressive repression turns 
into regressive suppression, where the higher culture in 
which the aesthetic values (and the aesthetic truth) had 
been monopolized and segregated from the reality col¬ 
lapses and dissolves in desublimated, “lower,” and destruc¬ 
tive forms, where the hatred of the young bursts into laugh- 



2 6 


An Essay on Liberation 

ter and song, mixing the barricade and the dance floor, love 
play and heroism. And the young also attack the esprit de 
serieux in the socialist camp: miniskirts against the apparat¬ 
chiks, rock ’n’ roll against Soviet Realism. The insistence 
that a socialist society can and ought to be light, pretty, 
playful, that these qualities are essential elements of free¬ 
dom, the faith in the rationality of the imagination, the de¬ 
mand for a new morality and culture — does this great 
anti-authoritarian rebellion indicate a new dimension and 
direction of radical change, the appearance of new agents 
of radical change, and a new vision of socialism in its 
qualitative difference from the established societies? Is 
there anything in the aesthetic dimension which has an 
essential affinity with freedom not only in its sublimated 
cultural (artistic) but also in its desublimated political, ex¬ 
istential form, so that the aesthetic can become a gesell- 
schaftliche Produktivkraft: factor in the technique of pro¬ 
duction, horizon under which the material and intellectual 
needs develop? 

Throughout the centuries, the analysis of the aesthetic 
dimension focused on the idea of the beautiful. Does this 
idea express the aesthetic ethos which provides the com¬ 
mon denominator of the aesthetic and the political? 

As desired object, the beautiful pertains to the domain of 
the primary instincts, Eros and Thanatos. The mythos links 
the adversaries: pleasure and terror. Beauty has the power 
to check aggression: it forbids and immobilizes the aggres¬ 
sor. The beautiful Medusa petrifies him who confronts 
her. “Poseidon, the god with azure locks, slept with her in 
a soft meadow on a bed with springtime flowers.” 1 She is 
slain by Perseus, and from her truncated body springs the 

1 Hesiod, Theogony , Norman O. Brown, translator (Indianapolis: 
Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), p. 61. 



The New Sensibility 27 

winged horse Pegasus, symbol of poetic imagination. Kin¬ 
ship of the beautiful, the divine, the poetic, but also kin¬ 
ship of the beautiful and unsublimated joy. Subsequently, 
the classical aesthetic, while insisting on the harmonious 
union of sensuousness, imagination, and reason in the 
beautiful, equally insisted on the objective (ontological) 
character of the beautiful, as the Form in which man and 
nature come into their own: fulfillment. Kant asks whether 
there is not a hidden connection between Beauty and Per¬ 
fection (Vollkommenheit), 2 and Nietzsche notes: “the 
Beautiful as the mirror ( Spiegelung ) of the Logical, i.e., 
the laws of logic are the object of the laws of the Beauti¬ 
ful.” 3 For the artist, the beautiful is mastery of the op¬ 
posites “without tension, so that violence is no longer 
needed. ...” The beautiful has the “biological value” of 
that which is “useful, beneficial, enhancing life” ( Leben- 
steigernd) 4 

By virtue of these qualities, the aesthetic dimension can 
serve as a sort of gauge for a free society, A universe of 
human relationships no longer mediated by the market, no 
longer based on competitive exploitation or terror, de¬ 
mands a sensitivity freed from the repressive satisfactions 
of the unfree societies; a sensitivity receptive to forms and 
modes of reality which thus far have been projected only 
by the aesthetic imagination. For the aesthetic needs have 
their own social content: they are the claims of the human 
organism, mind and body, for a dimension of fulfillment 
which can be created only in the struggle against the in¬ 
stitutions which, by their very functioning, deny and vio¬ 
late these claims. The radical social content of the aesthetic 

2 Kant, Handschrifflicker Nachlass (Akademieausgabe), p. 622. 

3 Nietzsche, Werke (Stuttgart: Alfred Kroner, 1921), vol. IX, p. 185. 

4 Ibid vol. XVI (1911), p. 230. 



2 8 An Essay on Liberation 

needs becomes evident as the demand for their most ele¬ 
mentary satisfaction is translated into group action on an 
enlarged scale. From the harmless drive for better zoning 
regulations and a modicum of protection from noise and 
dirt to the pressure for closing of whole city areas to auto¬ 
mobiles, prohibition of transistor radios in all public places, 
decommercialization of nature, total urban reconstruction, 
control of the birth rate — such action would become in¬ 
creasingly subversive of the institutions of capitalism and 
of their morality. The quantity of such reforms would turn 
into the quality of radical change to the degree to which 
they would critically weaken the economic, political, and 
cultural pressure and power groups which have a vested in¬ 
terest in preserving the environment and ecology of profit¬ 
able merchandising. 

The aesthetic morality is the opposite of puritanism. It 
does not insist on a daily bath or shower for people 
whose cleaning practices involve systematic torture, slaugh¬ 
tering, poisoning; nor does it insist on clean clothes for men 
who are professionally engaged in dirty deals. But it does 
insist on cleaning the earth from the very material garbage 
produced by the spirit of capitalism, and from this spirit it¬ 
self. And it insists on freedom as a biological necessity: be¬ 
ing physically incapable of tolerating any repression other 
than that required for the protection and amelioration of 
life. 

When Kant, in his third Critique , all but obliterated the 
frontiers between sensibility and imagination, he recog¬ 
nized the extent to which the senses are “productive,” cre¬ 
ative — the extent to which they have a share in producing 
the images of freedom. For its part, the imagination de¬ 
pends on the senses which provide the experiential mate¬ 
rial out of which the imagination creates its realm of free- 



The New Sensibility 29 

dom, by transforming the objects and relationships which 
have been the data of the senses and which have been 
formed by the senses. The freedom of the imagination is 
thus restrained by the order of the sensibility, not only by 
its pure forms (space and time), but also by its empirical 
content which, as the object-world to be transcended, re¬ 
mains a determining factor in the transcendence. Whatever 
beautiful or sublime, pleasurable or terrifying forms of 
reality the imagination may project, they are “derived” 
from sensuous experience. However, the freedom of the 
imagination is restrained not only by the sensibility, but 
also, at the other pole of the organic structure, by the ra¬ 
tional faculty of man, his reason. The most daring images 
of a new world, of new ways of life, are still guided by con¬ 
cepts, and by a logic elaborated in the development of 
thought, transmitted from generation to generation. On 
both sides, that of the sensibility and that of reason, history 
enters into the projects of the imagination, for the world 
of the senses is a historical world, and reason is the con¬ 
ceptual mastery and interpretation of the historical world. 

The order and organization of class society, which have 
shaped the sensibility and the reason of man, have also 
shaped the freedom of the imagination. It had its controlled 
play in the sciences, pure and applied, and its autonomous 
play in poetry, fiction, the arts. Between the dictates of in¬ 
strumentalist reason on the one hand and a sense experi¬ 
ence mutilated by the realizations of this reason on the 
other, the power of the imagination was repressed; it was 
free to become practical, i.e., to transform reality only 
within the general framework of repression; beyond these 
limits, the practice of the imagination was violation of 
taboos of social morality, was perversion and subversion. 
In the great historical revolutions, the imagination was, for 



30 An Essay on Liberation 

a short period, released and free to enter into the projects 
of a new social morality and of new institutions of free¬ 
dom; then it was sacrificed to the requirements of effective 
reason. 

If now, in the rebellion of the young intelligentsia, the 
right and the truth of the imagination become the demands 
of political action, if surrealistic forms of protest and re¬ 
fusal spread throughout the movement, this apparently in¬ 
significant development may indicate a fundamental 
change in the situation. The political protest, assuming a 
total character, reaches into a dimension which, as aesthetic 
dimension, has been essentially apolitical. And the political 
protest activates in this dimension precisely the founda¬ 
tional, organic elements: the human sensibility which re¬ 
bels against the dictates of repressive reason, and, in doing 
so, invokes the sensuous power of the imagination. The po¬ 
litical action which insists on a new morality and a new 
sensibility as preconditions and results of social change oc¬ 
curs at a point at which the repressive rationality that has 
brought about the achievements of industrial society be¬ 
comes utterly regressive — rational only in its efficiency to 
“contain” liberation. Beyond the limits (and beyond the 
power) of repressive reason now appears the prospect for 
a new relationship between sensibility and reason, namely, 
the harmony between sensibility and a radical conscious¬ 
ness: rational faculties capable of projecting and defining 
the objective (material) conditions of freedom, its real 
limits and chances. But instead of being shaped and per¬ 
meated by the rationality of domination, the sensibility 
would be guided by the imagination, mediating between 
the rational faculties and the sensuous needs. The great 
conception which animates Kant’s critical philosophy shat¬ 
ters the philosophical framework in which he kept it. The 
imagination, unifying sensibility and reason, becomes “pro- 



The New Sensibility 31 

ductive” as it becomes practical: a guiding force in the re¬ 
construction of reality — reconstruction with the help of 
a gaya scienza , a science and technology released from 
their service to destruction and exploitation, and thus 
free for the liberating exigencies of the imagination. The 
rational transformation of the world could then lead to a 
reality formed by the aesthetic sensibility of man. Such a 
world could (in a literal sense!) embody, incorporate, the 
human faculties and desires to such an extent that they 
appear as part of the objective determinism of nature — 
coincidence of causality through nature and causality 
through freedom. Andre Breton has made this idea the 
center of surrealist thought: his concept of the hasard ob- 
jectif designates the nodal point at which the two chains of 
causation meet and bring about the event. 5 

The aesthetic universe is the Lebenswelt on which the 
needs and faculties of freedom depend for their liberation. 
They cannot develop in an environment shaped by and for 
aggressive impulses, nor can they be envisaged as the mere 
effect of a new set of social institutions. They can emerge 
only in the collective practice of creating an environment: 
level by level, step by step — in the material and intellectual 
production, an environment in which the nonaggressive, 
erotic, receptive faculties of man, in harmony with the con¬ 
sciousness of freedom, strive for the pacification of man and 
nature. In the reconstruction of society for the attainment 
of this goal, reality altogether would assume a Form ex- 

5 See esp. Nadja: “Voici des rencontres qu’explique mal Ie simple 
recours a la coincidence, et qui, comme les rencontres de Tart, produc- 
trices de beaute, engendrent un emoi qui parait bien le signe d’une 
finalite objective, ou, du moins, la marque d'un sens dont nous ne sommes 
pas les seuls cr6ateurs. Cette finalite, ce sens, supposent, dans le reel, un 
ordre qui soit leur source. Quel ordre, distinct de l’ordre de la causalite 
quotidienne, nous est done ici signifie?” (Ferdinand Alquie, Philosophie 
du surrealisme . Paris: Flammarion, 1955, p 141). 



32 An Essay on Liberation 

pressive of the new goal. The essentially aesthetic quality 
of this Form would make it a work of art , but inasmuch as 
the Form is to emerge in the social process of production, 
art would have changed its traditional locus and function 
in society: it would have become a productive force in the 
material as well as cultural transformation. And as such 
force, art would be an integral factor in shaping the quality 
and the “appearance” of things, in shaping the reality, the 
way of life. This would mean the Aufhebung of art: end of 
the segregation of the aesthetic from the real, but also end 
of the commercial unification of business and beauty, ex¬ 
ploitation and pleasure. Art would recapture some of its 
more primitive “technical” connotations: as the art of pre¬ 
paring (cooking!), cultivating, growing things, giving them 
a form which neither violates their matter nor the sensi¬ 
tivity — ascent of Form as one of the necessities of being, 
universal beyond all subjective varieties of taste, affinity, 
etc. According to Kant, there are pure forms of sensibility 
a priori, common to all human beings. Only space and time? 
Or is there perhaps also a more material constitutive form, 
such as the primary distinction between beautiful and ugly, 
good and bad 0 — prior to all rationalization and ideology, 
a distinction made by the senses (productive in their re¬ 
ceptivity), distinguishing that which violates sensibility 
from that which gratifies it? In which case the vast varieties 
of taste, affinity, predilection would be the differentiation of 
an “original” basic form of sensibility, sense experience, on 
which modeling, restraining, and repressing forces would 
operate in accord with the respective individual and social 
situation. 

The new sensibility and the new consciousness which are 

Ci Here too, Kant's aesthetic theory leads to the most advanced notions: 
the beautiful as “symbol" of the moral. 



The New Sensibility 33 

to project and guide such reconstruction demand a new 
language to define and communicate the new “values” (lan¬ 
guage in the wider sense which includes words, images, 
gestures, tones). It has been said that the degree to which 
a revolution is developing qualitatively different social 
conditions and relationships may perhaps be indicated by 
the development of a different language: the rupture with 
the continuum of domination must also be a rupture with 
the vocabulary of domination. The surrealist thesis, accord¬ 
ing to which the poet is the total nonconformist, finds in the 
poetic language the semantic elements of the revolution. 

Car le poete . . . ne peut plus etre reconnu comme tel s’il 
ne s’oppose par un non-conformisme total au monde ou il 
vit. II se dresse contre tous, y compris les revolutionnaires 
qui, se plagant sur le terrain de la seule politique, arbi- 
trairement isolee par la de rensemble du mouvement cul- 
turel — preconisent la soumission de la culture a Taccom- 
plissement de la revolution sociale. 7 

The surrealist thesis does not abandon the materialistic 
premises but it protests against the isolation of the material 
from the cultural development, which leads to a submission 
of the latter to the former and thus to a reduction (if not 
denial) of the libertarian possibilities of the revolution. 
Prior to their incorporation into the material development, 
these possibilities are “sur-realistic”: they belong to the 
poetic imagination, formed and expressed in the poetic lan¬ 
guage. It is not, it cannot be, an instrumentalist language, 
not an instrument of revolution. 

It seems that the poems and the songs of protest and lib¬ 
eration are always too late or too early: memory or dream. 

7 Benjamin Peret, Le Deshonneur des poetes (Paris; Pauvert, 1965), 
p. 65 . Written in 1943. 



34 An Essay on Liberation 

Their time is not the present; they preserve their truth in 
their hope, in their refusal of the actual. The distance be¬ 
tween the universe of poetry and that of politics is so great, 
the mediations which validate the poetic truth and the ra¬ 
tionality of imagination are so complex, that any shortcut 
between the two realities seems fatal to poetry. There is 
no way in which we can envisage a historical change in the 
relation between the cultural and the revolutionary move¬ 
ment which could bridge the gap between the everyday 
and the poetic language and abrogate the dominance of 
the former. The latter seems to draw all its power and all 
its truth from its otherness, its transcendence. 

And yet, the radical denial of the Establishment and the 
communication of the new consciousness depend more and 
more fatefully on a language of their own as all communica¬ 
tion is monopolized and validated by the one-dimensional 
society. To be sure, the language of denial has, in its “ma¬ 
terial,’’ always been the same as the language of affirmation; 
the linguistic continuity reasserted itself after every revolu¬ 
tion. Perhaps necessarily so, because through all revolu¬ 
tions, the continuity of domination has been sustained. But 
in the past, the language of indictment and liberation, 
though it shared its vocabulary with the masters and their 
retainers, had found its own meaning and validation in ac¬ 
tual revolutionary struggles which eventually changed the 
established societies. The familiar (used and abused) vo¬ 
cabulary of freedom, justice, and equality could thus 
obtain not only new meaning but also new reality — the 
reality which emerged in the revolutions of the 17th and 
18th centuries and led to less restricted forms of freedom, 
justice, and equality. 

Today, the rupture with the linguistic universe of the 
Establishment is more radical: in the most militant areas 



The New Sensibility 35 

of protest, it amounts to a methodical reversal of meaning. 
It is a familiar phenomenon that subcultural groups develop 
their own language, taking the harmless words of everyday 
communication out of their context and using them for 
designating objects or activities tabooed by the Establish¬ 
ment. This is the Hippie subculture: “trip,” “grass,” “pot,” 
“acid,” and so on. But a far more subversive universe of dis¬ 
course announces itself in the language of black militants. 
Here is a systematic linguistic rebellion, which smashes the 
ideological context in which the words are employed and de¬ 
fined, and places them into the opposite context — negation 
of the established one. 8 Thus, the blacks “take over” some 
of the most sublime and sublimated concepts of Western 
civilization, desublimate them, and redefine them. For ex- 

8 The familiar “obscenities” in the language of the black and white 
radicals must be seen in this context of a methodical subversion of the 
linguistic universe of the Establishment. “Obscenities” are not officially 
co-opted and sanctioned by the spoken and written professions of the 
powers that be; their usage thus breaks the false ideological language 
and invalidates its definitions. But only in the political context of the 
Great Refusal do obscenities perform this function. If, for example, the 
highest executives of the nation or of the state are called, not President X 
or Governor Y but pig X or pig Y, and if what they say in campaign 
speeches is rendered as “oink, oink,” this offensive designation is used to 
deprive them of the aura of public servants or leaders who have only the 
common interest in mind. They are “redefined” as that which they really 
are in the eyes of the radicals, And if they are addressed as men who have 
perpetrated the unspeakable Oedipal crime, they are indicted on the 
counts of their own morality: the order they enforce with such violence 
was bom in their sense of guilt, They slept with the mother without hav¬ 
ing slain the father, a deed less reprehensible but more contemptible than 
that of Oedipus. The methodical use of “obscenities” in the political 
language of the radicals is the elemental act of giving a new name to 
men and things, obliterating the false and hypocritical name which 
the renamed figures proudly bear in and for the system. And if the re¬ 
naming invokes the sexual sphere, it falls in line with the great design 
of the desublimation of culture, which, to the radicals, is a vital aspect of 
liberation. 



36 An Essay on Liberation 

ample, the “soul” (in its essence lily-white ever since 
Plato), the traditional seat of everything that is truly human 
in man, tender, deep, immortal — the word which has be¬ 
come embarrassing, corny, false in the established uni¬ 
verse of discourse, has been desublimated and in this trans¬ 
substantiation, migrated to the Negro culture: they are 
soul brothers; the soul is black, violent, orgiastic; it is no 
longer in Beethoven, Schubert, but in the blues, in jazz, in 
rock n’ roll, in “soul food.” Similarly, the militant slogan 
“black is beautiful” redefines another central concept of the 
traditional culture by reversing its symbolic value and as¬ 
sociating it with the anti-color of darkness, tabooed magic, 
the uncanny. The ingression of the aesthetic into the politi¬ 
cal also appears at the other pole of the rebellion against 
the society of affluent capitalism, among the nonconformist 
youth. Here, too, the reversal of meaning, driven to the 
point of open contradiction: giving flowers to the police, 
“flower power” — the redefinition and very negation of the 
sense of “power”; the erotic belligerency in the songs of 
protest; the sensuousness of long hair, of the body unsoiled 
by plastic cleanliness. 

These political manifestations of a new sensibility indi¬ 
cate the depth of the rebellion, of the rupture with the con¬ 
tinuum of repression. They bear witness to the power of 
the society in shaping the whole of experience, the whole 
metabolism between the organism and its environment. 
Beyond the physiological level, the exigencies of sensibility 
develop as historical ones: the objects which the senses con¬ 
front and apprehend are the products of a specific stage of 
civilization and of a specific society, and the senses in turn 
are geared to their objects. This historical interrelation 
affects even the primary sensations: an established society 
imposes upon all its members the same medium of percep- 



The New Sensibility 37 

tion; and through all the differences of individual and class 
perspectives, horizons, backgrounds, society provides the 
same general universe of experience. Consequently, the 
rupture with the continuum of aggression and exploitation 
would also break with the sensibility geared to this uni¬ 
verse. Today’s rebels want to see, hear, feel new things in a 
new way: they link liberation with the dissolution of ordi¬ 
nary and orderly perception. The “trip” involves the disso¬ 
lution of the ego shaped by the established society — an 
artificial and short-lived dissolution. But the artificial and 
“private” liberation anticipates, in a distorted manner, an 
exigency of the social liberation: the revolution must be at 
the same time a revolution in perception which will accom¬ 
pany the material and intellectual reconstruction of society, 
creating the new aesthetic environment. 

Awareness of the need for such a revolution in percep¬ 
tion, for a new sensorium, is perhaps the kernel of truth in 
the psychedelic search. But it is vitiated when its narcotic 
character brings temporary release not only from the rea¬ 
son and rationality of the established system but also from 
that other rationality which is to change the established 
system, when sensibility is freed not only from the exigen¬ 
cies of the existing order but also from those of liberation. 
Intentionally noncommitted, the withdrawal creates its arti¬ 
ficial paradises within the society from which it withdrew. 
They thus remain subject to the law of this society, which 
punishes the inefficient performances. In contrast, the radi¬ 
cal transformation of society implies the union of the new 
sensibility with a new rationality. The imagination becomes 
productive if it becomes the mediator between sensibility 
on the one hand, and theoretical as well as practical reason 
on the other, and in this harmony of faculties (in which 
Kant saw the token of freedom) guides the reconstruction 



38 An Essay on Liberation 

of society. Such a union has been the distinguishing feature 
of art, but its realization has been stopped at the point at 
which it would have become incompatible with the basic 
institutions and social relationships. The material culture, 
the reality, continued to lag behind the progress of reason 
and imagination and to condemn much of these faculties to 
irreality, fantasy, fiction. Art could not become a technique 
in reconstructing reality; the sensibility remained repressed, 
and the experience mutilated. But the revolt against re¬ 
pressive reason which released the chained power of the 
aesthetic in the new sensibility has also radicalized it in art: 
the value and function of art are undergoing essential 
changes. They affect the affirmative character of art (by 
virtue of which art has the power of reconciliation with the 
status quo), and the degree of sublimation (which mili¬ 
tated against the realization of the truth, of the cognitive 
force of art). The protest against these features of art 
spreads through the entire universe of art prior to the First 
World War and continues with increased intensity: it gives 
voice and image to the negative power of art, and to the 
tendencies toward a desublimation of culture. 

The emergence of contemporary art (I shall use “art” 
throughout as including the visual arts as well as literature 
and music) means more than the traditional replacement 
of one style by another. Non-objective, abstract painting 
and sculpture, stream-of-consciousness and formalist litera¬ 
ture, twelve-tone composition, blues and jazz: these are not 
merely new modes of perception reorienting and intensify¬ 
ing the old ones; they rather dissolve the very structure of 
perception in order to make room — for what? The new ob¬ 
ject of art is not yet “given,” but the familiar object has be¬ 
come impossible, false. From illusion, imitation, harmony 
to reality — but the reality is not yet “given”; it is not the 



The New Sensibility 39 

one which is the object of “realism.” Reality has to be dis¬ 
covered and projected. The senses must learn not to see 
things anymore in the medium of that law and order which 
has formed them; the bad functionalism which organizes 
our sensibility must be smashed. 

From the beginning, the new art insists on its radical 
autonomy in tension or conflict with the development of the 
Bolshevik Revolution and the revolutionary movements 
activated by it. Art remains alien to the revolutionary praxis 
by virtue of the artist’s commitment to Form: Form as art’s 
own reality, as die S ache selbst. The Russian “formalist” B. 
Eikhenbaum insists: 

La notion de forme a obtenu un sens nouveau, elle n’est 
plus une enveloppe, mais une integrite dynamique et 
concrete qui a un contenu en elle-meme. hors de toute cor¬ 
relation. 9 

Form is the achievement of the artistic perception which 
breaks the unconscious and “false” “automatism,” the un¬ 
questioned familiarity which operates in every practice, in¬ 
cluding the revolutionary practice — an automatism of im¬ 
mediate experience, but a socially engineered experience 
which militates against the liberation of sensibility. The 
artistic perception is supposed to shatter this immediacy 
which, in truth, is a historical product: the medium of ex¬ 
perience imposed by the established society but coagulat¬ 
ing into a self-sufficient, closed, “automatic” system: 

Ainsi la vie disparait, se transformant en un rien. L’auto- 
matisation avale les objets, les habits, les meubles, la 
femme et la peur de la guerre. 10 

9 B. Eikhenbaum, in Theorie de la Litter attire. Textes des Formalistes 
Russes, ed. Tzvetan Todorov (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1965), p. 44. 

10 V. Chklovski, in ibid., p. 83. 



40 An Essay on Liberation 

If this deadly system of life is to be changed without being 
replaced by another deadly one, men must learn to develop 
the new sensibility of life — of their own life and that of 
things; 

Et voila que pour rendre la sensation de la vie, pour sentir 
les objets, pour eprouver que la pierre est de pierre, il 
existe ce que Ton appelle Tart. Le but de Y art, c'est de 
donner une sensation de 1’objet comme vision et non pas 
comme reconnaissance; le procede de lart est le pro- 
cede de singularisation des objets et le procede qui con- 
siste a obscurcir la forme, a augmenter la difficulty et la 
duree de la perception. L’acte de perception en art est une 
fin en soi et doit etre prolonge; Tart est un moyen rfeprou- 
ver le devenir de Tobjet; ce qui est dejd ‘devenu, nimporte 
pas pour Tart . 11 

I have referred to the Formalists because it seems char¬ 
acteristic that the transformative element in art is empha¬ 
sized by a school which insists on the artistic perception as 
end-in-itself, on the Form as Content. It is precisely the 
Form by virtue of which art transcends the given reality, 
works in the established reality against the established real¬ 
ity; and this transcendent element is inherent in art, in the 
artistic dimension. Art alters experience by reconstructing 
the objects of experience — reconstructing them in word, 
tone, image. Why? Evidently, the “language” of art must 
communicate a truth, an objectivity which is not accessi¬ 
ble to ordinary language and ordinary experience. This 
exigency explodes in the situation of contemporary art. 

The radical character, the “violence” of this reconstruc¬ 
tion in contemporary art seems to indicate that it does not 
rebel against one style or another but against “style” itself, 


11 Ibid. 



The New Sensibility 41 

against the art-form of art, against the traditional “mean¬ 
ing” of art. 

The great artistic rebellion in the period of the first World 
War gives the signal. 

Wir setzen grossen Jahrhunderten ein Nein entgegen . . . 
(Wir) gehen, zur spottischen Verwunderung unserer Mit- 
welt, einen Seitenweg, der kaum ein Weg zu sein scheint, 
und sagen: Dies ist die Hauptstrasse der Menschheitsent- 
wicklung. 12 

The fight is against the “Illusionistische Kunst Europas”: 13 
art must no longer be illusory because its relation to reality 
has changed: the latter has become susceptible to, even 
dependent on, the transforming function of art. The revolu¬ 
tions and the defeated and betrayed revolutions which oc¬ 
curred in the wake of the war denounced a reality which 
had made art an illusion, and inasmuch as art has been an 
illusion ( schoner Schein ), the new art proclaims itself as 
anti-art. Moreover, the illusory art incorporated the estab¬ 
lished ideas of possession (Besitzvorstettungen) naively 
into its forms of representation: it did not question the 
object-character ( die Dinglichkeiten ) of the world as sub¬ 
ject to man. Art must break with this reification: it must 
become gemalte oder modellierte Erkenntniskritik , based 
on a new optic replacing the Newtonian optic, and this art 
would correspond to a “type of man who is not like us.” 14 
Since then, the eruption of anti-art in art has manifested 
itself in many familar forms: destruction of syntax, frag¬ 
mentation of words and sentences, explosive use of ordinary 

12 Franz Marc, "Der Blaue Reiter” (1914), in Manifeste Manifeste 
1905-1933 (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1956), p. 56. 

13 Raoul Hausmann, “Die Kunst und die Zeit,” 1919 (in ibid., p. 186). 

14 Ibid., pp. 188 ff. 



42 An Essay on Liberation 

language, compositions without score, sonatas for anything. 
And yet, this entire de-formation is Form: anti-art has re¬ 
mained art, supplied, purchased, and contemplated as art. 

The wild revolt of art has remained a short-lived shock, 
quickly absorbed in the art gallery, within the four walls, 
in the concert hall, by the market, and adorning the plazas 
and lobbies of the prospering business establishments. 
Transforming the intent of art is self-defeating — a self-de- 
feat built into the very structure of art. No matter how 
affirmative, “realistic” the oeuvre may be, the artist has 
given it a form which is not part of the reality he presents 
and in which he works. The oeuvre is unreal precisely in¬ 
asmuch as it is art: the novel is not a newspaper story, 
the still life not alive, and even in pop art the real tin can 
is not in the supermarket. The very Form of art contradicts 
the effort to do away with the segregation of art to a “sec¬ 
ond reality,” to translate the truth of the productive imag¬ 
ination into the first reality. 

The Form of art: we must once again glance at the philo¬ 
sophical tradition which has focused the analysis of art on 
the concept of the “beautiful” (in spite of the fact that so 
much of art is obviously not beautiful!). The beautiful has 
been interpreted as ethical and cognitive “value”: the 
kalokagathon; the beautiful as sensuous appearance of the 
Idea; the Way of Truth passes through the realm of 
the Beautiful. What is meant by these metaphors? 

The root of the aesthetic is in sensibility. What is beauti¬ 
ful is first sensuous: it appeals to the senses; it is pleasur¬ 
able, object of unsublimated drives. However, the beautiful 
seems to occupy a position halfway between sublimated 
and unsublimated objectives. Beauty is not an essential, 
“organic” feature of the immediate sex-object (it may even 
deter the unsublimated drive!), while, at the other extreme, 



The New Sensibility 43 

a mathematical theorem can be called “beautiful” only in 
a highly abstract, figurative sense. It seems that the various 
connotations of beauty converge in the idea of Form. 

In the aesthetic Form, the content (matter) is assembled, 
defined, and arranged to obtain a condition in which the 
immediate, unmastered forces of the matter, of the “mate¬ 
rial,” are mastered, “ordered.” Form is the negation, the 
mastery of disorder, violence, suffering, even when it pre¬ 
sents disorder, violence, suffering. This triumph of art is 
achieved by subjecting the content to the aesthetic order, 
which is autonomous in its exigencies. The work of art sets 
its own limits and ends, it is sinngehend in relating the ele¬ 
ments to each other according to its own law: the “form" 
of the tragedy, novel, sonata, picture . . . The content is 
thereby transformed: it obtains a meaning (sense) which 
transcends the elements of the content, and this transcend¬ 
ing order is the appearahce of the beautiful as the truth 
of art. The way in which the tragedy narrates the fate of 
Oedipus and the city, in which it orders the sequence of 
events, gives word to the unsaid and to the unspeakable — 
the “Form” of the tragedy terminates the horror with the 
end of the play — it brings the destruction to a standstill, 
it makes the blind seeing, the intolerable tolerable and un¬ 
derstandable, it subordinates the wrong, the contingent, 
the evil, to “poetic justice.” The phrase is indicative of the 
internal ambivalence of art: to indict that which is, and to 
“cancel” the indictment in the aesthetic form, redeeming 
the suffering, the crime. This “redeeming,” reconciling 
power seems inherent in art, by virtue of its being art, by 
virtue of its form-giving power. 

The redeeming, reconciling power of art adheres even to 
the most radical manifestations of non-illusory art and anti¬ 
art. They are still oeuvres: paintings, sculptures, composi- 



44 An Essay on Liberation 

tions, poems, and as such they have their own form and 
with it their own order: their own frame (though it may 
be invisible), their own space, their own beginning, and 
their own end. The aesthetic necessity of art supersedes the 
terrible necessity of reality, sublimates its pain and pleas¬ 
ure; the blind suffering and cruelty of nature (and of the 
“nature” of man) assume meaning and end — “poetic jus¬ 
tice.” The horror of the crucifixion is purified by the beauti¬ 
ful face of Jesus dominating the beautiful composition, the 
horror of politics by the beautiful verse of Racine, the hor¬ 
ror of farewell forever by the Lied von der Erde. And in 
this aesthetic universe, joy and fulfillment find their proper 
place alongside pain and death — everything is in order 
again. The indictment is canceled, and even defiance, in¬ 
sult, and derision — the extreme artistic negation of art — 
succumb to this order. 

With this restoration of order, the Form indeed achieves 
a katharsis — the terror and the pleasure of reality are puri¬ 
fied. But the achievement is illusory, false, fictitious: it re¬ 
mains within the dimension of art, a work of art; in reality, 
fear and frustration go on unabated (as they do, after the 
brief katharsis , in the psyche). This is perhaps the most 
telling expression of the contradiction, the self-defeat, built 
into art: the pacifying conquest of matter, the transfigura¬ 
tion of the object remain unreal — just as the revolution in 
perception remains unreal. And this vicarious character of 
art has, time and again, given rise to the question as to the 
justification of art: was the Parthenon worth the sufferings 
of a single slave? Is it possible to write poetry after Ausch¬ 
witz? The question has been countered: when the horror 
of reality tends to become total and blocks political action, 
where else than in the radical imagination, as refusal of 
reality, can the rebellion, and its uncompromised goals, be 



The New Sensibility 45 

remembered? But today, are the images and their realiza¬ 
tion still the domain of “illusory” art? 

We suggested the historical possibility of conditions in 
which the aesthetic could become a gesellschaftliche Pro- 
duktivkraft and as such could lead to the “end” of art 
through its realization. Today, the outline of such condi¬ 
tions appears only in the negativity of the advanced indus¬ 
trial societies. They are societies whose capabilities defy the 
imagination. No matter what sensibility art may wish to 
develop, no matter what Form it may wish to give to things, 
to life, no matter what vision it may wish to communicate 
— a radical change of experience is within the technical 
reaches of powers whose terrible imagination organizes the 
world in their own image and perpetuates, ever bigger and 
better, the mutilated experience. 

However, the productive forces, chained in the infra¬ 
structure of these societies, counteract this negativity in 
progress. To be sure, the libertarian possibilities of tech¬ 
nology and science are effectively contained within the 
framework of the given reality: the calculated projection 
and engineering of human behavior, the frivolous invention 
of waste and luxurious junk, the experimentation with the 
limits of endurance and destruction are tokens of the mas¬ 
tery of necessity in the interest of exploitation — which in¬ 
dicate nevertheless progress in the mastery of necessity. Re¬ 
leased from the bondage to exploitation, the imagination, 
sustained by the achievements of science, could turn its 
productive power to the radical reconstruction of experi¬ 
ence and the universe of experience. In this reconstruction, 
the historical topos of the aesthetic would change: it would 
find expression in the transformation of the Lebenswelt — 
society as a work of art. This “utopian” goal depends (as 
every stage in the development of freedom did) on a revo- 



46 An Essay on Liberation 

lution at the attainable level of liberation. In other words: 
the transformation is conceivable only as the way in which 
free men (or rather men in the practice of freeing them¬ 
selves ) shape their life in solidarity, and build an environ¬ 
ment in which the struggle for existence loses its ugly and 
aggressive features. The Form of freedom is not merely 
self-determination and self-realization, but rather the de¬ 
termination and realization of goals which enhance, pro¬ 
tect, and unite life on earth. And this autonomy would find 
expression not only in the mode of production and produc¬ 
tion relations but also in the individual relations among 
men, in their language and in their silence, in their gestures 
and their looks, in their sensitivity, in their love and hate. 
The beautiful would be an essential quality of their free¬ 
dom. 

But today’s rebels against the established culture also 
rebel against the beautiful in this culture, against its all too 
sublimated, segregated, orderly, harmonizing forms. Their 
libertarian aspirations appear as the negation of the tradi¬ 
tional culture: as a methodical desublimation. Perhaps its 
strongest impetus comes from social groups which thus far 
have remained outside the entire realm of the higher cul¬ 
ture, outside its affirmative, sublimating, and justifying 
magic — human beings who have lived in the shadow of this 
culture, the victims of the power structure which has been 
the basis of this culture. They now oppose to the “music of 
the spheres” which was the most sublime achievement of 
this culture their own music, with all the defiance, and the 
hatred, and the joy of rebellious victims, defining their own 
humanity against the definitions of the masters. The black 
music, invading the white culture, is the terrifying realiza¬ 
tion of “O Freunde, nicht diese Toner — the refusal now 
hits the chorus which sings the Ode to Joy, the song which 



The New Sensibility 47 

is invalidated in the culture that sings it. Thomas Mann’s 
Doctor Faust us knows it: “I want to revoke the Ninth Sym¬ 
phony.” In the subversive, dissonant, crying and shouting 
rhythm, born in the “dark continent” and in the “deep 
South” of slavery and deprivation, the oppressed revoke the 
Ninth Symphony and give art a desublimated, sensuous 
form of frightening immediacy, moving, electrifying the 
body, and the soul materialized in the body. Black music is 
originally music of the oppressed, illuminating the extent to 
which the higher culture and its sublime sublimations, its 
beauty, have been class-based. The affinity between black 
music (and its avant-gardistic white development) and the 
political rebellion against the “affluent society” bears witness 
to the increasing desublimation of culture. 

It is still the simple, elementary negation, the antithesis: 
position of the immediate denial. This desublimation leaves 
the traditional culture, the illusionist art behind unmas¬ 
tered: their truth and their claims remain valid — next to 
and together with the rebellion, within the same given so¬ 
ciety. The rebellious music, literature, art are thus easily 
absorbed and shaped by the market — rendered harmless. 
In order to come into their own, they would have to aban¬ 
don the direct appeal, the raw immediacy of their presenta¬ 
tion, which invokes, in the protest, the familiar universe of 
politics and business, and with it the helpless familiarity of 
frustration and temporary release from frustration. Was it 
not precisely the rupture with this familarity which was the 
methodical goal of radical art? The abrogation of the Es¬ 
trangement Effect (which, to a considerable extent, was 
also operative in the great illusionist art) defeats the radi¬ 
calism of today’s art. Thus, the “living theater” founders to 
the degree to which it is living, to which we immediately 
identify ourselves with the actors, experience our familiar 



48 An Essay on Liberation 

sympathies, empathies, antipathies. The theater does not 
transcend this familiarity, this “deja vu” — it strengthens it. 
Just like the more and more organized “happenings,” like 
the ever more marketable pop art, this ambiance creates a 
deceptive “community” within the society. 

The conquest of this immediate familiarity, the “media¬ 
tions” which would make the many forms of rebellious art 
a liberating force on the societal scale (that is to say, a sub¬ 
verting force) are yet to be attained. They would reside in 
modes of work and pleasure, of thought and behavior, in a 
technology and in a natural environment which express the 
aesthetic ethos of socialism. Then, art may have lost its 
privileged, and segregated, dominion over the imagination, 
the beautiful, the dream. This may be the future, but the 
future ingresses into the present: in its negativity, the de- 
sublimating art and anti-art of today “anticipate” a stage 
where society’s capacity to produce may be akin to the crea¬ 
tive capacity of art, and the construction of the world of 
art akin to the reconstruction of the real world — union of 
liberating art and liberating technology. 15 By virtue of this 
anticipation, the disorderly, uncivil, farcical, artistic desub¬ 
limation of culture constitutes an essential element of radi¬ 
cal politics: of the subverting forces in transition. 

15 A utopian vision indeed, but realistic enough to animate the mili¬ 
tant students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in their action of May 1968: 
they called for a development of a consciousness which would guide the 
“creative activity immanent in every individual,” so that the “work 
of art” and “the artist” become mere “moments in this activity” — mo¬ 
ments which are paralyzed in every social “system which makes the 
work or the man into a monument” (Quelle universite? Quelle soci&te?, 
loc . cit. y p. 123). 



III. Subverting Forces 
— in Transition 


The notion of “aesthetic form” as the Form of a free so¬ 
ciety would indeed mean reversing the development of so¬ 
cialism from scientific to utopian unless we can point to 
certain tendencies in the infrastructure of advanced indus¬ 
trial society which may give this notion a realistic content. 
We have repeatedly referred to such tendencies: first of all 
the growing technological character of the process of pro¬ 
duction, with the reduction of the required physical energy 
and its replacement by mental energy — dematerialization 
of labor. At the same time, an increasingly automated ma¬ 
chine system, no longer used as the system of exploitation, 
would allow that “distantiation” of the laborer from the in¬ 
struments of production which Marx foresaw at the end of 
capitalism: the workers would cease to be the “principal 
agents” of material production, and become its “supervisors 
and regulators” — the emergence of a free subject within 
the realm of necessity. Already today, the achievements of 
science and technology permit the play of the productive 
imagination: experimentation with the possibilities of form 
and matter hitherto enclosed in the density of unmastered 
nature; the technical transformation of nature tends to 
make things lighter, easier, prettier — the loosening up of 



5o An Essay on Liberation 

reification. The material becomes increasingly susceptible 
and subject to aesthetic forms, which enhance its exchange 
value (the artistic, modernistic banks, office buildings, 
kitchens, salesrooms, and salespeople, etc.). And within 
the framework of capitalism, the tremendous growth in the 
productivity of labor enforces the ever-enlarged produc¬ 
tion of “luxuries”: wasteful in the armament industry, and 
in the marketing of gadgets, devices, trimmings, status 
symbols. 

This same trend of production and consumption, which 
makes for the affluence and attraction of advanced capital¬ 
ism, makes for the perpetuation of the struggle for exist¬ 
ence, for the increasing necessity to produce and consume 
the non-necessary: the growth of the so-called “discretion¬ 
ary income” in the United States indicates the extent to 
which income earned is spent on other than “basic needs.” 
Former luxuries become basic needs, a normal develop¬ 
ment which, under corporate capitalism, extends the com¬ 
petitive business of living to newly created needs and satis¬ 
factions. The fantastic output of all sorts of things and 
services defies the imagination, while restricting and dis¬ 
torting it in the commodity form, through which capitalist 
production enlarges its hold over human existence. And 
yet, precisely through the spread of this commodity form, 
the repressive social morality which sustains the system is 
being weakened. The obvious contradiction between the 
liberating possibilities of the technological transformation 
of the world, the light and free life on the one hand and the 
intensification of the struggle for existence on the other, 
generates among the underlying population that diffused 
aggressiveness which, unless steered to hate and fight the 
alleged national enemy, hits upon any suitable target: white 
or black, native or foreigner, Jew or Christian, rich or poor. 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 51 

This is the aggressiveness of those with the mutilated ex¬ 
perience, with the false consciousness and the false needs, 
the victims of repression who, for their living, depend on 
the repressive society and repress the alternative. Their 
violence is that of the Establishment and takes as targets 
figures which, rightly or wrongly, seem to be different, and 
to represent an alternative. 

But while the image of the libertarian potential of ad¬ 
vanced industrial society is repressed (and hated) by the 
managers of repression and their consumers, it motivates 
the radical opposition and gives it its strange unorthodox 
character. Very different from the revolution at previous 
stages of history, this opposition is directed against the 
totality of a well-functioning, prosperous society — a pro¬ 
test against its Form — the commodity form of men and 
things, against the imposition of false values and a false 
morality. This new consciousness and the instinctual rebel¬ 
lion isolate such opposition from the masses and from the 
majority of organized labor, the integrated majority, and 
make for the concentration of radical politics in active mi¬ 
norities, mainly among the young middle-class intelli¬ 
gentsia, and among the ghetto populations. Here, prior to 
all political strategy and organization, liberation becomes 
a vital, “biological” need. 

It is of course nonsense to say that middle-class opposi¬ 
tion is replacing the proletariat as the revolutionary class, 
and that the Lumpenproletariat is becoming a radical po¬ 
litical force. What is happening is the formation of still 
relatively small and weakly organized (often disorgan¬ 
ized) groups which, by virtue of their consciousness and 
their needs, function as potential catalysts of rebellion 
within the majorities to which, by their class origin, they be¬ 
long. In this sense, the militant intelligentsia has indeed cut 



52 An Essay on Liberation 

itself loose from the middle classes, and the ghetto popula¬ 
tion from the organized working class. But by that token 
they do not think and act in a vacuum: their consciousness 
and their goals make them representatives of the very real 
common interest of the oppressed. As against the rule of 
class and national interests which suppress this common in¬ 
terest, the revolt against the old societies is truly interna¬ 
tional: emergence of a new, spontaneous solidarity. This 
struggle is a far cry from the ideal of humanism and hu- 
manitas; it is the struggle for life — life not as masters and 
not as slaves, but as men and women. 

For Marxian theory, the location (or rather contraction) 
of the opposition in certain middle-class strata and in the 
ghetto population appears as an intolerable deviation — as 
does the emphasis on biological and aesthetic needs: re¬ 
gression to bourgeois or, even worse, aristocratic, ideolo¬ 
gies. But, in the advanced monopoly-capitalist countries, 
the displacement of the opposition (from the organized in¬ 
dustrial working classes to militant minorities) is caused by 
the internal development of the society; and the theoretical 
“deviation” only reflects this development. What appears 
as a surface phenomenon is indicative of basic tendencies 
which suggest not only different prospects of change, but 
also a depth and extent of change far beyond the expecta¬ 
tions of traditional socialist theory. Under this aspect, the 
displacement of the negating forces from their traditional 
base among the underlying population, rather than being 
a sign of the weakness of the opposition against the inte¬ 
grating power of advanced capitalism, may well be the slow 
formation of a new base, bringing to the fore the new his¬ 
torical Subject of change, responding to the new objective 
conditions, with qualitatively different needs and aspira¬ 
tions. And on this base (probably intermittent and prelim- 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 53 

inary) goals and strategies take shape which reexamine 
the concepts of democratic-parliamentary as well as of 
revolutionary transformation. 

The modifications in the structure of capitalism alter the 
basis for the development and organization of potentially 
revolutionary forces. Where the traditional laboring classes 
cease to be the “gravediggers” of capitalism, this function 
remains, as it were, suspended, and the political efforts 
toward change remain “tentative,” preparatory not only in 
a temporal but also in a structural sense. This means that 
the “addressees” as well as the immediate goals and occa¬ 
sions of action will be determined by the shifting situation 
rather than by a theoretically well-founded and elaborated 
strategy. This determinism, direct consequence of the 
strength of the system and the diffusion of the opposition, 
also implies a shift of emphasis toward “subjective factors”: 
the development of awareness and needs assumes primary 
importance. Under total capitalist administration and in- 
trojection, the social determination of consciousness is all 
but complete and immediate: direct implantation of the 
latter into the former. Under these circumstances, radical 
change in consciousness is the beginning, the first step in 
changing social existence: emergence of the new Subject. 
Historically, it is again the period of enlightenment prior 
to material change — a period of education, but education 
which turns into praxis: demonstration, confrontation, re¬ 
bellion. 

The radical transformation of a social system still de¬ 
pends on the class which constitutes the human base of the 
process of production. In the advanced capitalist countries, 
this is the industrial working class. The changes in the com¬ 
position of this class, and the extent of its integration into 
the system alter, not the potential but the actual political 



54 An Essay on Liberation 

role of labor. Revolutionary class “in-itself” but not “for- 
itself,” objectively but not subjectively, its radicalization 
will depend on catalysts outside its ranks. The develop¬ 
ment of a radical political consciousness among the masses 
is conceivable only if and when the economic stability 
and the social cohesion of the system begin to weaken. 
It was the traditional role of the Marxist-Leninist party to 
prepare the ground for this development. The stabilizing 
and integrating power of advanced capitalism, and the 
requirements of “peaceful coexistence,” forced this party to 
“parliamentarize” itself, to integrate itself into the bour¬ 
geois-democratic process, and to concentrate on economic 
demands, thereby inhibiting rather than promoting the 
growth of a radical political consciousness. Where the latter 
broke through the party and trade union apparatus, it hap¬ 
pened under the impact of “outside” forces — mainly from 
among the intelligentsia; the apparatus only followed suit 
when the movement gained momentum, and in order to 
regain control of it. 

No matter how rational this strategy may be, no matter 
how sensible the desperate effort to preserve strength in 
the face of the sustained power of corporate capitalism, the 
strategy testifies to the “passivity” of the industrial working 
classes, to the degree of their integration — it testifies to 
the facts which the official theory so vehemently denies. 
Under the conditions of integration, the new political con¬ 
sciousness of the vital need for radical change emerges 
among social groups which, on objective grounds, are (rela¬ 
tively ) free from the integrating, conservative interests and 
aspirations, free for the radical transvaluation of values. 
Without losing its historical role as the basic force of trans¬ 
formation, the working class, in the period of stabilization, 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 55 

assumes a stabilizing, conservative function; and the cata¬ 
lysts of transformation operate “from without.” 

This tendency is strengthened by the changing composi¬ 
tion of the working class. The declining proportion of blue 
collar labor, the increasing number and importance of 
white collar employees, technicians, engineers, and spe¬ 
cialists, divides the class. This means that precisely those 
strata of the working class which bore, and still bear, the 
brunt of brute exploitation will perform a gradually dimin¬ 
ishing function in the process of production. The intelli¬ 
gentsia obtains an increasingly decisive role in this process 
— an instrumentalist intelligentsia, but intelligentsia never¬ 
theless. This “new working class,” by virtue of its position, 
could disrupt, reorganize, and redirect the mode and rela¬ 
tionships of production. However, they have neither the in¬ 
terest nor the vital need to do so: they are well integrated 
and well rewarded. 1 To be sure, monopolistic competition 
and the race for intensifying the productivity of labor may 
enforce technological changes which may come into con¬ 
flict with still prevailing policies and forms of private capi¬ 
talist enterprise, and these changes may then lead to a 
technocratic reorganization of large sectors of the society 

1 On June 15, 1967, The New York Times published, under the head¬ 
ing ‘'Think Tanks: Applied Research on Not for Profit Basis Is Paying 
Off Handsomely/’ an article on the $29 million a year Illinois Institute 
of Technology Research Institute [sic]. One “of the hundreds of engi¬ 
neers” interviewed by the writer is quoted as follows: “There is a tre¬ 
mendous amount of selling in this job. . . . My real love is minimum 
weight structures . . . but I’m willing to work on minimum cost struc¬ 
tures or how to kill the Russians better because the organization survives 
by doing research that’s saleable.” This statement, priceless in itself and 
a treasure for language analysis (note the smooth fusion of love, kill, 
research, and saleable), expresses the consciousness (and the uncon¬ 
scious) of at least one of these “technocrats.” Potential revolutionaries? 



56 An Essay on Liberation 

(even of its culture and ideology). But it is not clear why 
they would lead to an abolition of the capitalist system, of 
the subjugation of the underlying population to the appara¬ 
tus of profitable production for particular interests. Such a 
qualitative change would presuppose the control and re¬ 
direction of the productive apparatus by groups with needs 
and goals very different from those of the technocrats. 2 
Technocracy, no matter how '“pure,” sustains and stream¬ 
lines the continuum of domination. This fatal link can be 
cut only by a revolution which makes technology and tech¬ 
nique subservient to the needs and goals of free men: in 
this sense, and in this sense only, it would be a revolution 
against technocracy. 

Such a revolution is not on the agenda. In the domain of 
corporate capitalism, the two historical factors of transfor¬ 
mation, the subjective and objective, do not coincide: they 
are prevalent in different and even antagonistic groups. 
The objective factor, i.e., the human base of the process of 
production which reproduces the established society, ex¬ 
ists in the industrial working class, the human source and 
reservQir of exploitation; the subjective factor, i.e., the po¬ 
litical consciousness exists among the nonconformist young 
intelligentsia; and the vital need for change is the very life 
of the ghetto population; and of the “underprivileged” sec¬ 
tions of the laboring classes in backward capitalist coun¬ 
tries. The two historical factors do coincide in large areas 
of the Third World, where the National Liberation Fronts 
and the guerrillas fight with the support and participation 
of the class which is the base of the process of production, 
namely, the predominantly agrarian and the emerging in¬ 
dustrial proletariat. 

2 The existence of such groups among the highly qualified technical 
personnel was demonstrated during the May-June rebellion in France. 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 57 

The constellation which prevails in the metropoles of 
capitalism, namely, the objective necessity of radical 
change, and the paralysis of the masses, seems typical of a 
nonrevolutionary but prerevolutionary situation. The transi¬ 
tion from the former to the latter presupposes a critical 
weakening of the global economy of capitalism, and the 
intensification and extension of the political work: radi¬ 
cal enlightenment. It is precisely the preparatory character 
of this work which gives it its historical significance: to 
develop, in the exploited, the consciousness (and the un¬ 
conscious ) which would loosen the hold of enslaving needs 
over their existence — the needs which perpetuate their 
dependence on the system of exploitation. Without this rup¬ 
ture, which can only be the result of political education in 
action, even the most elemental, the most immediate force 
of rebellion may be defeated, or become the mass basis of 
counterrevolution. 

The ghetto population of the United States constitutes 
such a force. Confined to small areas of living and dying, it 
can be more easily organized and directed. Moreover, lo¬ 
cated in the core cities of the country, the ghettos form 
natural geographical centers from which the struggle can 
be mounted against targets of vital economic and political 
importance; in this respect, the ghettos can be compared 
with the faubourgs of Paris in the eighteenth century, and 
their location makes for spreading and “contagious” up¬ 
heavals. Cruel and indifferent privation is now met with 
increasing resistance, but its still largely unpolitical charac¬ 
ter facilitates suppression and diversion. The racial conflict 
still separates the ghettos from the allies outside. While it 
is true that the white man is guilty, it is equally true that 
white men are rebels and radicals. However, the fact is that 
monopolistic imperialism validates the racist thesis: it sub- 



5 § An Essay on Liberation 

jects ever more nonwhite populations to the brutal power of 
its bombs, poisons, and moneys; thus making even the ex¬ 
ploited white population in the metropoles partners and 
beneficiaries of the global crime. Class conflicts are being 
superseded or blotted out by race conflicts: color lines be¬ 
come economic and political realities — a development 
rooted in the dynamic of late imperialism and its struggle 
for new methods of internal and external colonization. 

The long-range power of the black rebellion is further 
threatened by the deep division within this class (the rise of 
a Negro bourgeoisie), and by its marginal (in terms of the 
capitalist system) social function. The majority of the black 
population does not occupy a decisive position in the proc¬ 
ess of production, and the white organizations of labor have 
not exactly gone out of their way to change this situation. 
In the cynical terms of the system, a large part of this popu¬ 
lation is “expendable,” that is to say, it makes no essential 
contribution to the productivity of the system. Conse¬ 
quently, the powers that be may not hesitate to apply ex¬ 
treme measures of suppression if the movement becomes 
dangerous. The fact is that, at present in the United States, 
the black population appears as the “most natural” force of 
rebellion. 

Its distance from the young middle-class opposition is 
formidable in every respect. The common ground: the total 
rejection of the existing society, of its entire value system, 
is obscured by the obvious class difference — just as, within 
the white population, the community of “real interest” be¬ 
tween the students and the workers is vitiated by the class 
conflict. However, this community did realize itself in po¬ 
litical action on a rather large scale during the May rebel¬ 
lion in France — against the implicit injunction on the part 
of the Communist Party and the CGT (Confederation 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 59 

Generate du Travail), and the common action was ini¬ 
tiated by the students, not by the workers. This fact may be 
indicative of the depth and unity of the opposition under¬ 
neath and across the class conflicts. With respect to the stu¬ 
dent movement, a basic trend in the very stucture of ad¬ 
vanced industrial society favors the gradual development 
of such a community of interests. The long-range process 
which, in large areas of material production, tends to re¬ 
place heavy physical labor by technical, mental energy, in¬ 
creases the social need for scientifically trained, intelligent 
workers; a considerable part of the student population is 
prospective working class — “new working class,” not only 
not expendable, but vital for the growth of the existing so¬ 
ciety. The student rebellion hits this society at a vulnerable 
point; accordingly, the reaction is venomous and violent. 

The “student movement” — the very term is already ide¬ 
ological and derogatory: it conceals the fact that quite im¬ 
portant sections of the older intelligentsia and of the non¬ 
student population take active part in the movement. It 
proclaims very different goals and aspirations; the general 
demands for educational reforms are only the immediate 
expression of wider and more fundamental aims. The most 
decisive difference is between the opposition in the so¬ 
cialist and that in the capitalist countries. The former 
accepts the socialist structure of society but protests against 
the repressive-authoritarian regime of the state and party 
bureaucracy; while, in the capitalist countries, the militant 
(and apparently increasing) part of the movement is anti¬ 
capitalist: socialist or anarchist. Again, within the capitalist 
orbit, the rebellion against fascist and military dictatorships 
(in Spain, in Latin American countries) has a strategy and 
goals different from the rebellion in the democratic coun¬ 
tries. And one should never forget the one student rebellion 



6o 


An Essay on Liberation 

which was instrumental in perpetrating the most despicable 
mass murder in the contemporary world: the massacre of 
hundreds of thousands of “communists” in Indonesia. The 
crime has not yet been punished; it is the only horrible ex¬ 
ception from the libertarian, liberating function of student 
activism. 

In the fascist and semifascist countries, the militant 
students (a minority of the students everywhere) find sup¬ 
port among the industrial and agrarian proletariat; in 
France and Italy, they have been able to obtain precarious 
(and passing!) aid from powerful leftist parties and unions; 
in West Germany and in the United States, they meet with 
the vociferous and often violent hostility of “the people” 
and of organized labor. Revolutionary in its theory, in its 
instincts, and in its ultimate goals, the student movement 
is not a revolutionary force, perhaps not even an avant- 
garde so long as there are no masses capable and willing 
to follow, but it is the ferment of hope in the overpowering 
and stifling capitalist metropoles: it testifies to the truth of 
the alternative — the real need, and the real possibility of a 
free society. To be sure, there are the wild ones and the 
noncommitted, the escapists into all kinds of mysticism, the 
good fools and the bad fools, and those who don’t care what 
happens; there are the authentic and the organized happen¬ 
ings and nonconformities. 

Naturally, the market has invaded this rebellion and 
made it a business, but it is serious business nevertheless. 
What matters is not the more or less interesting psychol¬ 
ogy of the participants nor the often bizarre forms of the 
protest (which quite frequently make the absurd reason¬ 
ableness of the Establishment, and the anti-heroic, sensu¬ 
ous images of the alternative more transparent than the 
most serious argument could do), but that against which 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 61 

the protest is directed. The demands for a structural reform 
of the educational system (urgent enough by themselves; 
we shall come back to them subsequently) seek to counter¬ 
act the deceptive neutrality and often plainly apologetic 
teaching; and to provide the student with the conceptual 
instruments for a solid and thorough critique of the mate¬ 
rial and intellectual culture. At the same time, they seek to 
abolish the class character of education. These changes 
would lead to an extension and development of conscious¬ 
ness which would remove the ideological and technological 
veil that hides the terrible features of the affluent society. 

The development of a true consciousness is still the pro¬ 
fessional function of the universities. No wonder then that 
the student opposition meets with the all but pathological 
hatred on the part of the so-called “community,” including 
large sections of organized labor. To the degree to which 
the university becomes dependent on the financial and po¬ 
litical goodwill of the community and of the government, 
the struggle for a free and critical education becomes a 
vital part in the larger struggle for change. 

What appears as extraneous “politicalization” of the uni¬ 
versity by disrupting radicals is today (as it was so often in 
the past) the “logical,” internal dynamic of education: 
translation of knowledge into reality, of humanistic values 
into humane conditions of existence. This dynamic, arrested 
by the pseudo-neutral features of academia, would, for ex¬ 
ample, be released by the inclusion into the curriculum of 
courses giving adequate treatment to the great noncon¬ 
formist movements in civilization and to the critical analy¬ 
sis of contemporary societies. The groundwork for building 
the bridge between the “ought” and the “is,” between the¬ 
ory and practice, is laid within theory itself. Knowledge is 
transcendent (toward the object world, toward reality) not 



62 


An Essay on Liberation 

only in an epistemological sense — as against repressive 
forms of life — it is political. Denial of the right to political 
activity in the university perpetuates the separation be¬ 
tween theoretical and practical reason and reduces the 
effectiveness and the scope of intelligence. The educa¬ 
tional demands thus drive the movement beyond the uni¬ 
versities, into the streets, the slums, the “community.” And 
the driving force is the refusal to grow up, to mature, to 
perform efficiently and “normally” in and for a society 

■ which compels the vast majority of the population to 
“earn” their living in stupid, inhuman, and unnecessary 
jobs, 

• which conducts its booming business on the back of 
ghettos, slums, and internal and external colonialism, 

• which is infested with violence and repression while 
demanding obedience and compliance from the victims 
of violence and repression, 

• which, in order to sustain the profitable productivity 
on which its hierarchy depends, utilizes its vast resources 
for waste, destruction, and an ever more methodical crea¬ 
tion of conformist needs and satisfactions. 

To the degree to which the rebellion is directed against 
a functioning, prosperous, “democratic” society, it is a 
moral rebellion, against the hypocritical, aggressive values 
and goals, against the blasphemous religion of this society, 
against everything it takes seriously, everything it professes 
while violating what it professes. 

The “unorthodox” character of this opposition, which does 
not have the traditional class basis, and which is at the same 
time a political, instinctual, and moral rebellion, shapes 
the strategy and scope of the rebellion. It extends to the 
entire organization of the existing liberal-parliamentary 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 63 

democracy. Among the New Left, a strong revulsion against 
traditional politics prevails: against that whole network of 
parties, committees, and pressure groups on all levels; 
against working within this network and with its methods. 
This entire sphere and atmosphere, with all its power, is 
invalidated; nothing that any of these politicians, repre¬ 
sentatives, or candidates declares is of any relevance to the 
rebels; they cannot take it seriously although they know 
very well that it may mean to them getting beaten, going 
to jail, losing a job. They are not professional martyrs: 
they prefer not to be beaten, not to go to jail, not to lose 
their job. But for them, this is not a question of choice; the 
protest and refusal are parts of their metabolism, and they 
extend to the power structure as a whole. The democratic 
process organized by this structure is discredited to such 
an extent that no part of it can be extracted which is not 
contaminated. Moreover, using this process would divert 
energy to snail-paced movements. For example, electioneer¬ 
ing with the aim of significantly changing the composition 
of the U.S. Congress might take a hundred years, judging 
by the present rate of progress, and assuming that the effort 
of political radicalization continues unchecked. And the 
performance of the courts, from the lowest to the highest, 
does not mitigate the distrust in the given democratic-con¬ 
stitutional setup. Under these circumstances, to work for 
the improvement of the existing democracy easily appears 
as indefinitely delaying attainment of the goal of creating 
a free society. 

Thus, in some sectors of the opposition, the radical pro¬ 
test tends to become antinomian, anarchistic, and even non¬ 
political. Here is another reason why the rebellion often 
takes on the weird and clownish forms which get on the 
nerves of the Establishment. In the face of the gruesomely 



64 An Essay on Liberation 

serious totality of institutionalized politics, satire, irony, 
and laughing provocation become a necessary dimension 
of the new politics. The contempt for the deadly esprit de 
serieux which permeates the talkings and doings of the pro¬ 
fessional and semiprofessional politicians appears as con¬ 
tempt for the values which they profess while destroying 
them. The rebels revive the desperate laughter and the 
cynical defiance of the fool as means for demasking the 
deeds of the serious ones who govern the whole. 

This alienation of the radical opposition from the existing 
democratic process and institutions suggests a thorough 
reexamination of democracy (“bourgeois” democracy, rep¬ 
resentative government) and of their role in the transition 
from capitalism to socialism or, generally, from an unfree 
to a free society. By and large, Marxian theory has a positive 
evaluation of the role of bourgeois democracy in this transi¬ 
tion — up to the stage of the. revolution itself. By virtue of 
its commitment (however limited in practice) to civil 
rights and liberties, bourgeois democracy provides the most 
favorable ground for the development and organization of 
dissent. This is still true, but the forces which vitiate the 
“protective” features within the democratic framework 
itself are gaining momentum. The mass democracy devel¬ 
oped by monopoly capitalism has shaped the rights and 
liberties which it grants in its own image and interest; the 
majority of the people is the majority of their masters; devi¬ 
ations are easily “contained”; and concentrated power can 
afford to tolerate (perhaps even defend) radical dissent as 
long as the latter complies with the established rules and 
manners (and even a little beyond it). The opposition is 
thus sucked into the very world which it opposes — and 
by the very mechanisms which allow its development and 
organization; the opposition without a mass basis is frus- 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 65 

trated in its efforts to obtain such a mass basis. Under these 
circumstances, working according to the rules and methods 
of democratic legality appears as surrender to the prevail- 
ing power structure. And yet, it would be fatal to abandon 
the defense of civil rights and liberties within the estab¬ 
lished framework. But as monopoly capitalism is compelled 
to extend and fortify its dominion at home and abroad, the 
democratic struggle will come into increasing conflict with 
the existing democratic institutions: with its built-in bar¬ 
riers and conservative dynamic. 

The semi-democratic process works of necessity against 
radical change because it produces and sustains a popular 
majority whose opinion is generated by the dominant in¬ 
terests in the status quo. As long as this condition prevails, 
it makes sense to say that the general will is always wrong 
— wrong inasmuch as it objectively counteracts the possible 
transformation of society into more humane ways of life. To 
be sure, the method of persuasion is still open to the mi¬ 
nority, but it is fatally reduced by the fact that the leftist 
minority does not possess the large funds required for equal 
access to the mass media which speak day and night for 
the dominant interests — with those wholesome interludes 
in favor of the opposition that buttress the illusory faith 
in prevailing equality and fair play. And yet, without the 
continuous effort of persuasion, of reducing, one by one, 
the hostile majority, the prospects of the opposition would 
be still darker than they are. 

Dialectics of democracy: if democracy means self-gov¬ 
ernment of free people, with justice for all, then the real¬ 
ization of democracy would presuppose abolition of the 
existing pseudo-democracy. In the dynamic of corporate 
capitalism, the fight for democracy thus tends to assume 
anti-democratic forms, and to the extent to which the demo- 



66 


An Essay on Liberation 

cratic decisions are made in “parliaments” on all levels, the 
opposition will tend to become extraparliamentary. The 
movement to extend constitutionally professed rights and 
liberties to the daily life of the oppressed minorities, even 
the movement to preserve existing rights and liberties, will 
become “subversive” to the degree to which it will meet 
the stiffening resistance of the majority against an “exag¬ 
gerated” interpretation and application of equality and 
justice. 

An opposition which is directed, not against a particular 
form of government or against particular conditions within 
a society, but against a given social system as a whole, can¬ 
not remain legal and lawful because it is the established 
legality and the established law which it opposes. The fact 
that the democratic process provides for the redress of 
grievances and for legal and lawful changes does not alter 
the illegality inherent in an opposition to an institution¬ 
alized democracy which halts the process of change at 
the stage where it would destroy the existing system. By 
virtue of this built-in stabilizer or “governor,” capitalist 
mass-democracy is perhaps to a higher degree self-perpetu¬ 
ating than any other form of government or society; and the 
more so the more it rests, not on terror and scarcity, but on 
efficiency and wealth, and on the majority will of the un¬ 
derlying and administered population. This new situation 
has direct bearing on the old question as to the right of re¬ 
sistance. Can we say that it is the established system rather 
than the resistance to it which is in need of justification? 
Such seems to be the implication of the social contract 
theories which consider civil society dissolved when, in its 
existing form, it no longer fulfills the functions for which 
it was set up, namely, as a system of socially necessary and 
productive repression. Theoretically, these functions were 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 67 

determined by the philosophers: the realistically minded 
defined the “end of government” as the protection of prop¬ 
erty, trade, and commerce; the idealists spoke of the realiza¬ 
tion of Reason, Justice, Freedom (without altogether neg¬ 
lecting or even minimizing the more material and economic 
aspects). In both schools, judgment as to whether a gov¬ 
ernment actually fulfilled these “ends,” and the criteria 
for judging, were usually limited to the particular nation¬ 
state (or type of nation-state) which the respective phi¬ 
losopher had in mind: that the security, growth, and 
freedom of the one nation-state involved the insecurity, de¬ 
struction, or oppression of another did not invalidate the 
definition, nor did an established government lose its claim 
for obedience when the protection of property and the 
realization of reason left large parts of the population in 
poverty and servitude. 

In the contemporary period, the questions as to the “end 
of government” have subsided. It seems that the continued 
functioning of the society is sufficient justification for its 
legality and its claim for obedience, and “functioning” 
seems defined rather negatively as absence of civil war, 
massive disorder, economic collapse. Otherwise anything 
goes: military dictatorship, plutocracy, government by 
gangs and rackets. Genocide, war crimes, crimes against 
humanity are not effective arguments against a government 
which protects property, trade, and commerce at home 
while it perpetrates its destructive policy abroad. And in¬ 
deed, there is no enforceable law that could deprive such 
a constitutional government of its legitimacy and legality. 
But this means that there is no (enforceable) law other 
than that which serves the status quo, and that those who 
refuse such service are eo ipso outside the realm of law even 
before they come into actual conflict with the law. 



68 


An Essay on Liberation 

The absurd situation: the established democracy still 
provides the only legitimate framework for change and 
must therefore be defended against all attempts on the 
Right and the Center to restrict this framework, but at the 
same time, preservation of the established democracy pre¬ 
serves the status quo and the containment of change. An¬ 
other aspect of the same ambiguity: radical change de¬ 
pends on a mass basis, but every step in the struggle for 
radical change isolates the opposition from the masses and 
provokes intensified repression: mobilization of institu¬ 
tionalized violence against the opposition, thus further 
diminishing the prospects for radical change. After the 
electoral triumph of the reaction over the Left in the after- 
math of the French student rebellion, Humanite wrote 
(according to The Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1968): 
“every barricade, every car burned gave tens of thousands 
of votes to the Gaullist party.” This is perfectly correct — as 
perfectly correct as the corollary proposition that without 
the barricades and car burnings the ruling powers would 
be safer and stronger, and the opposition, absorbed and 
restricted by the parliamentary game, would further emas¬ 
culate and pacify the masses on whom the change depends. 
The conclusion? The radical opposition inevitably faces 
defeat of its direct, extraparliamentary action, of uncivil 
disobedience, and there are situations in which it must take 
the risk of such defeat — if, in doing so, it can consolidate 
its strength and expose the destructive character of civil 
obedience to a reactionary regime. 

For it is precisely the objective, historical function of the 
democratic system of corporate capitalism to use the Law 
and Order of bourgeois liberalism as a counterrevolutionary 
force, thus imposing upon the radical opposition the neces¬ 
sity of direct action and uncivil disobedience, while con- 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 69 

fronting the opposition with its vastly superior strength. 
Under these circumstances, direct action and uncivil dis¬ 
obedience become for the rebels integral parts of the trans¬ 
formation of the indirect democracy of corporate capitalism 
into a direct democracy 3 in which elections and representa¬ 
tion no longer serve as institutions of domination. As against 
the latter, direct action becomes a means of democratiza¬ 
tion, of change even within the established system. All its 
power could not silence the student opposition (weakest and 
most diffused of all historical oppositions); and there is 
good reason to believe that it was, not the parliamentary 
and the Gallup poll opinion, but rather the students and the 
resistance which enforced the change in the attitude of 
the government toward the war in Vietnam. And it was the 
uncivil disobedience of the students of Paris which sud¬ 
denly broke through the memory repression of organized 
labor and recalled, for a very short moment, the historical 
power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of 
the red flag and the International. 

The alternative is, not democratic evolution versus radi¬ 
cal action, but rationalization of the status quo versus 
change. As long as a social system reproduces, by indoc¬ 
trination and integration, a self-perpetuating conservative 
majority, the majority reproduces the system itself — open 
to changes within, but not beyond, its institutional frame¬ 
work. Consequently, the struggle for changes beyond the 
system becomes, by virtue of its own dynamic, undemo¬ 
cratic in the terms of the system, and counterviolence is 

3 “Direct democracy”: in modern mass society, democracy, no matter 
in what form, is not conceivable without a system of representation. Di¬ 
rect democracy would assure, on all levels, genuinely free selection and 
election of candidates, revocability at the discretion of the constituencies, 
and uncensored education and information. Again, such democracy pre¬ 
supposes equal and universal education for autonomy. 



yo An Essay on Liberation 

from the beginning inherent in this dynamic. Thus the radi¬ 
cal is guilty — either of surrendering to the power of the 
status quo, or of violating the Law and Order of the status 
quo. 

But who has the right to set himself up as judge of an 
established society, who other than the legally constituted 
agencies or agents, and the majority of the people? Other 
than these, it could only be a self-appointed elite, or leaders 
who would arrogate to themselves such judgment. Indeed, 
if the alternative were between democracy and dictator¬ 
ship (no matter how “benevolent”), the answer would be 
noncontroversial: democracy is preferable. However, this 
democracy does not exist, and the government is factually 
exercised by a network of pressure groups and “machines,” 
vested interests represented by and working on and through 
the democratic institutions. These are not derived from a 
sovereign people. The representation is representative of 
the will shaped by the ruling minorities. Consequently, if 
the alternative is rule by an elite, it would only mean re¬ 
placement of the present ruling elite by another; and if this 
other should be the dreaded intellectual elite, it may not be 
less qualified and less threatening than the prevailing one. 
True, such government, initially, would not have the en¬ 
dorsement of the majority “inherited” from the previous 
government — but once the chain of the past governments 
is broken, the majority would be in a state of flux, and, 
released from the past management, free to judge the new 
government in terms of the new common interest. To be 
sure, this has never been the course of a revolution, but it 
is equally true that never before has a revolution occurred 
which had at its disposal the present achievements of pro¬ 
ductivity and technical progress. Of course, they could be 
effectively used for imposing another set of repressive con- 



Subverting Forces — in Transition yi 

trols, but our entire discussion was based on the proposition 
that the revolution would be liberating only if it were car¬ 
ried by the non-repressive forces stirring in the existing soci¬ 
ety. The proposition is no more — and no less — than a 
hope. Prior to its realization, it is indeed only the individual, 
the individuals, who can judge, with no other legitimation 
than their consciousness and conscience. But these individ¬ 
uals are more and other than private persons with their par¬ 
ticular contingent preferences and interests. Their judg¬ 
ment transcends their subjectivity to the degree to which it 
is based on independent thought and information, on a ra¬ 
tional analysis and evaluation of their society. The exist¬ 
ence of a majority of individuals capable of such rationality 
has been the assumption on which democratic theory has 
been based. If the established majority is not composed of 
such individuals, it does not think, will, and act as sovereign 
people. 

The old story: right against right — the positive, codified, 
enforceable right of the existing society against the nega¬ 
tive, unwritten, unenforceable right of transcendence 
which is part of the very existence of man in history: the 
right to insist on a less compromised, less guilty, less ex¬ 
ploited humanity. The two rights must come into violent 
conflict as long as the established society depends, for its 
functioning, on exploitation and guilt. The opposition can¬ 
not change this state of affairs by the very means which 
protect and sustain the state of affairs. Beyond it, there are 
only the ideal and the offense, and those who claim, for 
their offending action, a right have to answer for their ac¬ 
tion before the tribunal of the existing society. For neither 
conscience nor commitment to an ideal can legalize the sub¬ 
version of an established order which defines order, or even 
legalize disturbance of the peace which is the peace of the 



72 An Essay on Liberation 

established order. To the latter alone belongs the lawful 
right to abrogate peace and to organize the killing and 
beating. In the established vocabulary, “violence” is a term 
which one does not apply to the action of the police, the 
National Guard, the Marshals, the Marines, the bombers. 
The “bad” words are a priori reserved for the Enemy, and 
their meaning is defined and validated by the actions of 
the Enemy regardless of their motivation and goal. No mat¬ 
ter how “good” the end, it does not justify the illegal means. 4 

4 A frightful example of the language of counter-sense — destruction 
not only of the meaning of words but also of the very idea of humanity — 
is provided by a report in The New York Times (September 5, 1967) 
which contains the following passages; 

County Judge Christ Seraphim sat with his golden retriever, Holly, 
on the porch of his Spanish-style house on a pleasant East Side street 
[in Milwaukee] this afternoon and made some acerbic comments on 
1,000 civil rights demonstrators who jived and strutted past his front 
lawn. . . . 

"I think they are disturbing the peace, don’t you?” he asked, look¬ 
ing at the marchers today. “They are loud and boisterous, are they 
not? I can’t enjoy the peace and tranquillity of my home, a home I 
paid a lot for.” 

As for the Rev. James E. Groppi, the white Roman Catholic priest 
who commands the marchers, Judge Seraphim snapped: “He is a 
criminal, a convicted criminal, convicted twice by a jury for disorderly 
conduct.” 

The demonstrators finally moved out of earshot, and Judge Seraphim 
resumed, with a grateful sigh, his reading of “A History of the Jews” 
by Abram Leon Sacher, president of Brandeis University, but soon 
the marchers returned. 

“These people,” said Judge Seraphim, this time referring to his 
book, “were baked in ovens. But they maintained their dignity to the 
end. They didn’t do much marching. They are the most law-abiding 
people in the world.” 

The epitome of Law and Order: men are law-abiding if they go 
to the ovens and get baked without “much marching,” while those who 
march in order to protest and to prevent a possible repetition of the con¬ 
centration camps are “disturbing the peace” and “criminal” is the priest 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 73 

The proposition “the end justifies the means” is indeed, 
as a general statement, intolerable — but so is, as a general 
statement, its negation. In radical political practice, the 
end belongs to a world different from and contrary to 
the established universe of discourse and behavior. But the 
means belong to the latter and are judged by the latter, on 
its own terms, the very terms which the end invalidates. For 
example, assuming an action aims at stopping crimes 
against humanity committed in the professed national in¬ 
terest; and the means to attain this goal are acts of or¬ 
ganized civil disobedience. In accord with established law 
and order not the crimes but the attempt to stop them is 
condemned and punished as a crime; thus it is judged by 
the very standards which the action indicts. The existing so¬ 
ciety defines the transcending action on its, society’s, own 
terms — a self-validating procedure, entirely legitimate, 
even necessary for this society: one of the most effective 
rights of the Sovereign is the right to establish enforceable 
definitions of words. 5 

Political linguistics: armor of the Establishment. If the 
radical opposition develops its own language, it protests 
spontaneously, subconsciously, against one of the most ef- 


who leads the protest. And the counter-sense triumphs in the very name of 
the Judge: Christ Seraphim. 

5 "Nous contestons une culture qui donne la suprematie au langage- 
parle. Ce langage elabore par la classe bourgeoise est un signe d’apparte- 
nance a cette classe. Mais ce langage qui est le fait d’une minorite 
d'individus s'impose a tous comme le seul mode de communication va- 
Iable; . . . Le langage n'est pas seulement un moyen de communication, 
c’est aussi et surtout un mode d'apprehension de la realite, celui tout 
formel et tout intellectuel que peut se permettre une classe detachee par 
ses privileges economiques des conflits et des contradictions de la vie 
sociale”: (Extrait de Majuscule , organe de liaison de la faculte de Lyon, 
29 mai 1968. Quelle universite? Quelle societe?, loc. cit., pp. 45-46.) 



74 An Essay on Liberation 

fective “secret weapons” of domination and defamation. 
The language of the prevailing Law and Order, validated 
by the courts and by the police, is not only the voice but 
also the deed of suppression.® This language not only de¬ 
fines and condemns the Enemy, it also creates him; and 
this creation is not the Enemy as he really is but rather as 
he must be in order to perform his function for the Estab¬ 
lishment. The end now does justify the means: actions 
cease to be crimes if they serve to preserve and extend the 


6 Awareness of this fact and its implications is rarely found in the 
respectable press, An amazing exception is an article by David S. Broder 
in The Los Angeles Times of October i, 1968. It contains the following 
passages: 

The systematic stripping of meaning and substance from words is a 
form of subversion not covered by statute. Nor are politicians the only 
guilty parties. A nation that had grown accustomed to hearing reports 
of heavy fighting in the “demilitarized zone” or of persons being in¬ 
jured in a “non-violent demonstration” was already well on its way to 
losing a grip on its sanity. 

Rhetorical excesses are accepted as part of any campaign, but this 
year the candidates have been exceptionally profligate in wasting the 
resources of the language. The words “law” and “order,” and “peace,” 
for example, are fundamental to the vocabulary of citizens of a free 
country. Yet the meaning has been drained from these words as higher 
charges of emotion have been added. . . . 

But the American experiment in self-government was launched in a 
society where certain abstract concepts were well-understood. If they 
had not been part of every mans vocabulary, the system of self-gov¬ 
ernment could never have been attempted. 

Jefferson could expect to be understood when he wrote: “We hold 
these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that 
they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that 
among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

The concepts in that statement cannot be visualized; they must be 
defined. 

And when words lose their meaning, when the medium overwhelms 
the message, a system of government like ours may no longer be 
operable. 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 75 

“Free World.” Conversely, what the Enemy does, is evil; 
what he says — propaganda. This a priori linguistic defama¬ 
tion hits first the Enemy abroad: the defense of his own 
land, his own hut, his own naked life is a crime, the su¬ 
preme crime which deserves the supreme punishment. 
Long before the special and not-so-special forces are physi¬ 
cally trained to kill, burn, and interrogate, their minds and 
bodies are already desensitized to see and hear and smell in 
the Other not a human being but a beast — a beast how¬ 
ever, which is subject to all-out punishment. The linguistic 
pattern constantly repeats itself: In Vietnam, “typical crim¬ 
inal communist violence” is perpetrated against American 
“strategic operations”; the Reds have the impertinence to 
“launch a sneak attack” (presumably they are supposed to 
announce it beforehand and to deploy in the open); they 
are “evading a death trap” (presumably they should have 
stayed in). The Viet Cong attack American barracks “in the 
dead of night” and kill American boys (presumably, Ameri¬ 
cans only attack in broad daylight, don’t disturb the sleep of 
the enemy, and don’t kill Vietnamese boys). The massacre 
of hundreds of thousands of communists (in Indonesia) is 
called “impressive” — a comparable “killing rate” suffered 
by the other side would hardly have been honored with 
such an adjective. To the Chinese, the presence of Ameri¬ 
can troops in East Asia is a threat to their “ideology,” while 
presumably the presence of Chinese troops in Central or 
South America would be a real, and not only an ideologi¬ 
cal, threat to the United States. 

This linguistic universe, which incorporates the Enemy 
(as Untermensch ) into the routine of everyday speech, can 
be transcended only in action. For violence is built into the 
very structure of this society: as the accumulated aggres¬ 
siveness which drives the business of life in all branches of 



j6 An Essay on Liberation 

corporate capitalism, as the legal aggression on the high¬ 
ways, and as the national aggression abroad which seems 
to become more brutal the more it takes as its victims the 
wretched of the earth — those who have not yet been civi¬ 
lized by the capital of the Free World. In the mobilization 
of this aggressiveness, ancient psychical forces are activated 
to serve the economic-political needs of the system: the 
Enemy are those who are unclean, infested; they are ani¬ 
mals rather than humans; they are contagious (the domino 
theory!) and threaten the clean, anesthetized, healthy free 
world. 7 They must be liquidated, smoked out, and burned 
out like venom; their infested jungles too must be burned 
out and cleared for freedom and democracy. The Enemy 
already has its “fifth column” inside the clean world: the 
Commies and the Hippies and their like with the long hair 
and the beards and the dirty pants — those who are promis¬ 
cuous and take liberties which are denied to the clean and 
orderly who remain clean and orderly even when they kill 
and bomb and burn. Never perhaps since the Middle Ages 
has accumulated repression erupted on such global scale 
in organized aggression against those outside the repres¬ 
sive system — “outsiders” within and without. 

In the face of the scope and intensity of this sanctioned 
aggression, the traditional distinction between legitimate 
and illegitimate violence becomes questionable. If legiti¬ 
mate violence includes, in the daily routine of “pacifi¬ 
cation” and “liberation,” wholesale burning, poisoning, 
bombing, the actions of the radical opposition, no matter 
how illegitimate, can hardly be called by the same name: 

7 See “The Americans in Vietnam” (anonymous) in Alternatives , Uni¬ 
versity of California, San Diego, Fall 1966; originally published in Ger¬ 
man in Das Argument, No. 36, Berlin, 1966; in French in Les Temps 
Modernes , January 1966. 



Subverting Forces — in Transition 77 

violence. Can there be any meaningful comparison, in mag¬ 
nitude and criminality, between the unlawful acts com¬ 
mitted by the rebels in the ghettos, on the campuses, on 
the city streets on the one side, and the deeds perpetrated 
by the forces of order in Vietnam, in Bolivia, in Indonesia, 
in Guatemala, on the other? Can one meaningfully call it an 
offense when demonstrators disrupt the business of the uni¬ 
versity, the draft board, the supermarket, the flow of traf¬ 
fic, to protest against the far more efficient disruption of 
the business of life of untold numbers of human beings by 
the armed forces of law and order? Here too, the brute 
reality requires a redefinition of terms: the established vo¬ 
cabulary discriminates a priori against the opposition — it 
protects the Establishment. 

“Law and Order”: these words have always had an omi¬ 
nous sound; the entire necessity and the entire horror of 
legitimate force are condensed, and sanctioned, in this 
phrase. There can be no human association without law 
and order, enforceable law and order, but there are degrees 
of good and evil in human associations — measured in terms 
of the legitimate, organized violence required to protect 
the established society against the poor, the oppressed, the 
insane: the victims of its well-being. Over and above their 
legitimacy in constitutional terms, the extent to which 
established law and order can legitimately demand (and 
command) obedience and compliance largely depends (or 
ought to depend) on the extent to which this law and this 
order obey and comply with their own standards and 
values. These may first be ideological (like the ideas of 
liberty, equality, fraternity advanced by the revolutionary 
bourgeoisie), but the ideology can become a material po¬ 
litical force in the armor of the opposition as these values 
are betrayed, compromised, denied in the social reality. 



78 An Essay on Liberation 

Then the betrayed promises are, as it were, “taken over” by 
the opposition, and with them the claim for legitimacy. In 
this situation, law and order become something to be estab¬ 
lished as against the established law and order: the existing 
society has become illegitimate, unlawful: it has invali¬ 
dated its own law. Such has been the dynamic of the his¬ 
torical revolutions; it is hard to see how it can be arrested 
indefinitely. 



IV. Solidarity 


The preceding attempt to analyze the present opposi¬ 
tion to the society organized by corporate capitalism was 
focused on the striking contrast between the radical and 
total character of the rebellion on the one hand, and the ab¬ 
sence of a class basis for this radicalism on the other. This 
situation gives all efforts to evaluate and even discuss the 
prospects for radical change in the domain of corporate 
capitalism their abstract, academic, unreal character. The 
search for specific historical agents of revolutionary change 
in the advanced capitalist countries is indeed meaningless. 
Revolutionary forces emerge in the process of change it¬ 
self; the translation of the potential into the actual is the 
work of political practice. And just as little as critical theory 
can political practice orient itself on a concept of revolution 
which belongs to the nineteenth and early twentieth cen¬ 
tury, and which is still valid in large areas of the Third 
World. This concept envisages the “seizure of power” in 
the course of a mass upheaval, led by a revolutionary party 
acting as the avant-garde of a revolutionary class and set¬ 
ting up a new central power which would initiate the basic 
social changes. Even in industrial countries where a strong 
Marxist party has organized the exploited masses, strategy 



8 o 


An Essay on Liberation 

is no longer guided by this notion — witness the long-range 
Communist policy of “popular fronts.” And the concept is 
altogether inapplicable to those countries in which the in¬ 
tegration of the working class is the result of structural eco- 
nomic-politicial processes (sustained high productivity; 
large markets; neo-colonialism; administered democracy) 
and where the masses themselves are forces of conservatism 
and stabilization. It is the very power of this society which 
contains new modes and dimensions of radical change. 

The dynamic of this society has long since passed the 
stage where it could grow on its own resources, its own 
market, and on normal trade with other areas. It has grown 
into an imperialist power which, through economic and 
technical penetration and outright military intervention, 
has transformed large parts of the Third World into de¬ 
pendencies. Its policy is distinguished from classical im¬ 
perialism of the preceding period by effective use of eco¬ 
nomic and technical conquests on the one hand, and by the 
political-strategic character of intervention on the other: 
the requirements of the global fight against communism 
supersede those of profitable investments. In any case, by 
virtue of the evolution of imperialism, the developments in 
the Third World pertain to the dynamic of the First World, 
and the forces of change in the former are not extraneous 
to the latter; the “external proletariat” is a basic factor of 
potential change within the dominion of corporate capital¬ 
ism. Here is the coincidence of the historical factors of 
revolution: this predominantly agrarian proletariat en¬ 
dures the dual oppression exercised by the indigenous rul¬ 
ing classes and those of the foreign metropoles. A liberal 
bourgeoisie which would ally itself with the poor and lead 
their struggle does not exist. Kept in abject material and 
mental privation, they depend on a militant leadership. 



Solidarity 81 

Since the vast majority outside the cities is unable to mount 
any concerted economic and political action which would 
threaten the existing society, the struggle for liberation will 
be a predominantly military one, carried out with the sup¬ 
port of the local population, and exploiting the advantages 
of a terrain which impedes traditional methods of suppres¬ 
sion. These circumstances, of necessity, make for guerrilla 
warfare. It is the great chance, and at the same time the ter¬ 
rible danger, for the forces of liberation. The powers that be 
will not tolerate a repetition of the Cuban example; they will 
employ ever more effective means and weapons of suppres¬ 
sion, and the indigenous dictatorships will be strengthened 
with the ever more active aid from the imperialist metro- 
poles. It would be romanticism to underrate the strength of 
this deadly alliance and its resolution to contain sub¬ 
version. It seems that not the features of the terrain, nor 
the unimaginable resistance of the men and women of Viet¬ 
nam, nor considerations of "world opinion,” but fear of the 
other nuclear powers has so far prevented the use of nu¬ 
clear or seminuclear weapons against a whole people and 
a whole country. 

Under these circumstances, the preconditions for the 
liberation and development of the Third World must 
emerge in the advanced capitalist countries. Only the in¬ 
ternal weakening of the superpower can finally stop the 
financing and equipping of suppression in the backward 
countries. The National Liberation Fronts threaten the life 
line of imperialism; they are not only a material but also an 
ideological catalyst of change. The Cuban revolution and 
the Viet Cong have demonstrated: it can be done; there is 
a morality, a humanity, a will, and a faith which can resist 
and deter the gigantic technical and economic force of 
capitalist expansion. More than the “socialist humanism” 



82 


An Essay on Liberation 

of the early Marx, this violent solidarity in defense, this ele¬ 
mental socialism in action, has given form and substance to 
the radicalism of the New Left; in this ideological respect 
too, the external revolution has become an essential part 
of the opposition within the capitalist metropoles. How¬ 
ever, the exemplary force, the ideological power of the 
external revolution, can come to fruition only if the internal 
structure and cohesion of the capitalist system begin to dis¬ 
integrate. The chain of exploitation must break at its strong¬ 
est link. 

Corporate capitalism is not immune against economic 
crisis. The huge “defense” sector of the economy not only 
places an increasingly heavy burden on the taxpayer, it 
also is largely responsible for the narrowing margin of 
profit. The growing opposition against the war in Vietnam 
points up the necessity of a thorough conversion of the econ¬ 
omy, risking the danger of rising unemployment, which is a 
by-product of technical progress in automation, The “peace¬ 
ful” creation of additional outlets for the productivity of 
the metropoles would meet with the intensified resistance in 
the Third World, and with the contesting and competitive 
strength of the Soviet orbit. The absorption of unemploy¬ 
ment and the maintenance of an adequate rate of profit 
would thus require the stimulation of demand on an ever 
larger scale, thereby stimulating the rat race of the competi¬ 
tive struggle for existence through the multiplication of 
waste, planned obsolescence, parasitic and stupid jobs and 
services. The higher standard of living, propelled by the 
growing parasitic sector of the economy, would drive wage 
demands toward capital’s point of no return. But the struc¬ 
tural tendencies which determine the development of 
corporate capitalism do not justify the assumption that ag¬ 
gravated class struggles would terminate in a socialist revo- 



Solidarity 83 

lution through organized political action. To be sure, even 
the most advanced capitalist welfare state remains a class 
society and therefore a state of conflicting class interests. 
However, prior to the disintegration of the state power, the 
apparatus and the suppressive force of the system would 
keep the class struggle within the capitalist framework. The 
translation of the economic into the radical political strug¬ 
gle would be the consequence rather than the cause of 
change. The change itself could then occur in a general, 
unstructured, unorganized, and diffused process of disin¬ 
tegration. This process may be sparked by a crisis of the 
system which would activate the resistance not only against 
the political but also against the mental repression imposed 
by the society. Its insane features, expression of the ever 
more blatant contradiction between the available resources 
for liberation and their use for the perpetuation of servi¬ 
tude, would undermine the daily routine, the repressive 
conformity, and rationality required for the continued 
functioning of the society. 

The dissolution of social morality may manifest itself in 
a collapse of work discipline, slowdown, spread of dis¬ 
obedience to rules and regulations, wildcat strikes, boy¬ 
cotts, sabotage, gratuitous acts of noncompliance. The vio¬ 
lence built into the system of repression may get out of 
control, or necessitate ever more totalitarian controls. 

Even the most totalitarian technocratic-political admin¬ 
istration depends, for its functioning, on what is usually 
called the “moral fiber”: a (relatively) “positive” atti¬ 
tude among the underlying population toward the useful¬ 
ness of their work and toward the necessity of the repres¬ 
sions exacted by the social organization of work. A society 
depends on the relatively stable and calculable sanity of 
the people, sanity defined as the regular, socially coordi- 



84 An Essay on Liberation 

nated functioning of mind and body — especially at work, 
in the shops and offices, but also at leisure and fun. More¬ 
over, a society also demands to a considerable extent, be¬ 
lief in one’s beliefs (which is part of the required sanity); 
belief in the operative value of society’s values. Opera- 
tionalism is indeed an indispensable supplement to want 
and fear as forces of cohesion. 

Now it is the strength of this moral fiber, of the opera¬ 
tional values (quite apart from their ideational validity), 
which is likely to wear off under the impact of the growing 
contradictions within the society. The result would be a 
spread, not only of discontent and mental sickness, but also 
of inefficiency, resistance to work, refusal to perform, negli¬ 
gence, indifference — factors of dysfunction which would 
hit a highly centralized and coordinated apparatus, where 
breakdown at one point may easily affect large sections of 
the whole. To be sure, these are subjective factors, but they 
may assume material force in conjunction with the objec¬ 
tive economic and political strains to which the system will 
be exposed on a global scale. Then, and only then, that po¬ 
litical climate would prevail which could provide a mass 
basis for the new forms of organization required for direct¬ 
ing the struggle. 

We have indicated the tendencies which threaten the 
stability of the imperialist society and emphasized the ex¬ 
tent to which the liberation movements in the Third World 
affect the prospective development of this society. It is to 
an even greater extent affected by the dynamic of “peaceful 
coexistence” with the old socialist societies, the Soviet orbit. 
In important aspects, this coexistence has contributed to the 
stabilization of capitalism: “world communism” has been 
the Enemy who would have to be invented if he did not 
exist — the Enemy whose strength justified the “defense 



Solidarity 85 

economy” and the mobilization of the people in the national 
interest. Moreover, as the common Enemy of all capitalism, 
communism promoted the organization of a common in¬ 
terest superseding the intercapitalist differences and con¬ 
flicts. Last but not least, the opposition within the advanced 
capitalist countries has been seriously weakened by the re¬ 
pressive Stalinist development of socialism, which made 
socialism not exactly an attractive alternative to capitalism. 

More recently, the break in the unity of the communist 
orbit, the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Vietnam, and 
the "cultural revolution” in China have changed this pic¬ 
ture. The possibility of constructing socialism on a truly 
popular base, without the Stalinist bureaucratization and 
the danger of a nuclear war as the imperialist answer to the 
emergence of this kind of socialist power, has led to some 
sort of common interest between the Soviet Union on the 
one side and the United States on the other. 

In a sense, this is indeed the community of interests of 
the “haves” against the “have nots,” of the Old against the 
New. The “collaborationist” policy of the Soviet Union 
necessitates the pursuance of power politics which increas¬ 
ingly reduces the prospect that Soviet society, by virtue of 
its basic institutions alone (abolition of private ownership 
and control of the means of production: planned economy) 
is still capable of making the transition to a free society. 
And yet, the very dynamic of imperialist expansion places 
the Soviet Union in the other camp: would the effective re¬ 
sistance in Vietnam, and the protection of Cuba be possible 
without Soviet aid? 

However, while we reject the unqualified convergence 
thesis, according to which — at least at present — the as¬ 
similation of interests prevails upon the conflict between 
capitalism and Soviet socialism, we cannot minimize the 



86 An Essay on Liberation 

essential difference between the latter and the new histori¬ 
cal efforts to construct socialism by developing and creating 
a genuine solidarity between the leadership and the lib¬ 
erated victims of exploitation. The actual may considerably 
deviate from the ideal, the fact remains that, for a whole 
generation, “freedom,” “socialism,” and “liberation” are 
inseparable from Fidel and Che and the guerrillas — not 
because their revolutionary struggle could furnish the 
model for the struggle in the metropoles, but because they 
have recaptured the truth of these ideas, in the day-to-day 
fight of men and women for a life as human beings: for a 
new life. 

What kind of life? We are still confronted with the de¬ 
mand to state the “concrete alternative.” The demand is 
meaningless if it asks for a blueprint of the specific institu¬ 
tions and relationships which would be those of the new 
society: they cannot be determined a priori; they will de¬ 
velop, in trial and error, as the new society develops. If we 
could form a concrete concept of the alternative today, it 
would not be that of an alternative; the possibilities of the 
new society are sufficiently “abstract,” i.e., removed from 
and incongruous with the established universe to defy any 
attempt to identify them in terms of this universe. However, 
the question cannot be brushed aside by saying that what 
matters today is the destruction of the old, of the powers 
that be, making way for the emergence of the new. Such an 
answer neglects the essential fact that the old is not simply 
bad, that it delivers the goods, and that people have a real 
stake in it. There can be societies which are much worse — 
there are such societies today. The system of corporate 
capitalism has the right to insist that those who work for its 
replacement justify their action. 

But the demand to state the concrete alternatives is justi- 



Solidarity 87 

fied for yet another reason. Negative thinking draws what¬ 
ever force it may have from its empirical basis: the actual 
human condition in the given society, and the “given” pos¬ 
sibilities to transcend this condition, to enlarge the realm of 
freedom. In this sense, negative thinking is by virtue of its 
own internal concepts “positive”: oriented toward, and 
comprehending a future which is “contained” in the pres¬ 
ent. And in this containment (which is an important aspect 
of the general containment policy pursued by the estab¬ 
lished societies), the future appears as possible liberation. 
It is not the only alternative: the advent of a long period of 
“civilized” barbarism, with or without the nuclear destruc¬ 
tion, is equally contained in the present. Negative thinking, 
and the praxis guided by it, is the positive and positing 
effort to prevent this utter negativity. 

The concept of the primary, initial institutions of libera¬ 
tion is familiar enough and concrete enough: collective 
ownership, collective control and planning of the means of 
production and distribution. This is the foundation, a neces¬ 
sary but not sufficient condition for the alternative: it would 
make possible the usage of all available resources for the 
abolition of poverty, which is the prerequisite for the turn 
from quantity into quality: the creation of a reality in 
accordance with the new sensitivity and the new con¬ 
sciousness. This goal implies rejection of those policies of 
reconstruction, no matter how revolutionary, which are 
bound to perpetuate (or to introduce) the pattern of the 
unfree societies and their needs. Such false policy is perhaps 
best summed up in the formula “to catch up with, and to 
overtake the productivity level of the advanced capitalist 
countries.” What is wrong with this formula is not the 
emphasis on the rapid improvement of the material condi¬ 
tions but on the model guiding their improvement. The 



88 


An Essay on Liberation 

model denies the alternative, the qualitative difference. 
The latter is not, and cannot be, the result of the fastest 
possible attainment of capitalist productivity, but rather the 
development of new modes and ends of production — 
“new” not only (and perhaps not at all) with respect to 
technical innovations and production relations, bat with 
respect to the different human needs and the different hu¬ 
man relationships in working for the satisfaction of these 
needs. These new relationships would be the result of a 
“biological” solidarity in work and purpose, expressive of a 
true harmony between social and individual needs and 
goals, between recognized necessity and free development 
— the exact opposite of the administered and enforced har¬ 
mony organized in the advanced capitalist (and socialist?) 
countries. It is the image of this solidarity as elemental, in¬ 
stinctual, creative force which the young radicals see in 
Cuba, in the guerrillas, in the Chinese cultural revolution. 

Solidarity and cooperation: not all their forms are lib¬ 
erating. Fascism and militarism have developed a deadly 
efficient solidarity. Socialist solidarity is autonomy: self- 
determination begins at home — and that is with every I, 
and the We whom the I chooses. And this end must indeed 
appear in the means to attain it, that is to say, in the strat¬ 
egy of those who, within the existing society, work for the 
new one. If the socialist relationships of production are to 
be a new way of life, a new Form of life, then their existen¬ 
tial quality must show forth, anticipated and demonstrated, 
in the fight for their realization. Exploitation in all its forms 
must have disappeared from this fight: from the work re¬ 
lationships among the fighters as well as from their individ¬ 
ual relationships. Understanding, tenderness toward each 
other, the instinctual consciousness of that which is evil, 
false, the heritage of oppression, would then testify to the 
authenticity of the rebellion. In short, the economic, politi- 



Solidarity 89 

cal, and cultural features of a classless society must have 
become the basic needs of those who fight for it. This 
ingression of the future into the present, this depth di¬ 
mension of the rebellion accounts, in the last analysis, 
for the incompatibility with the traditional forms of the 
political struggle. The new radicalism militates against 
the centralized bureaucratic communist as well as against 
the semi-democratic liberal organization. There is a strong 
element of spontaneity, even anarchism, in this rebellion, 
expression of the new sensibility, sensitivity against domina¬ 
tion : the feeling, the awareness, that the joy of freedom and 
the need to be free must precede liberation. Therefore the 
aversion against preestablished Leaders, apparatchiks of 
all sorts, politicians no matter how leftist. The initiative 
shifts to small groups, widely diffused, with a high degree 
of autonomy, mobility, flexibility. 

To be sure, within the repressive society, and against its 
ubiquitous apparatus, spontaneity by itself cannot possibly 
be a radical and revolutionary force. It can become such a 
force only as the result of enlightenment, education, po¬ 
litical practice — in this sense indeed, as a result of organi¬ 
zation. The anarchic element is an essential factor in the 
struggle against domination: preserved but disciplined in 
the preparatory political action, it will be freed and auf- 
gehoben in the goals of the struggle. Released for the 
construction of the initial revolutionary institutions, the anti- 
repressive sensibility, allergic to domination, would mili¬ 
tate against the prolongation of the “First Phase,” that is, 
the authoritarian bureaucratic development of the produc¬ 
tive forces. The new society could then reach relatively fast 
the level at which poverty could be abolished (this level 
could be considerably lower than that of advanced capital¬ 
ist productivity, which is geared to obscene affluence and 
waste). Then the development could tend toward a sensu- 



90 An Essay on Liberation 

ous culture, tangibly contrasting with the gray-on-gray 
culture of the socialist societies of Eastern Europe. Produc¬ 
tion would be redirected in defiance of all the rationality 
of the Performance Principle; socially necessary labor 
would be diverted to the construction of an aesthetic rather 
than repressive environment, to parks and gardens rather 
than highways and parking lots, to the creation of areas of 
withdrawal rather than massive fun and relaxation. Such 
redistribution of socially necessary labor (time), incom¬ 
patible with any society governed by the Profit and Per¬ 
formance Principle, would gradually alter society in all its 
dimensions — it would mean the ascent of the Aesthetic 
Principle as Form of the Reality Principle: a culture of 
receptivity based on the achievements of industrial civiliza¬ 
tion and initiating the end of its self-propelling productivity. 

Not regression to a previous stage of civilization, but re¬ 
turn to an imaginary temps perdu in the real life of man¬ 
kind: progress to a stage of civilization where man has 
learned to ask for the sake of whom or of what he organizes 
his society; the stage where he checks and perhaps even 
halts his incessant struggle for existence on an enlarged 
scale, surveys what has been achieved through centuries of 
misery and hecatombs of victims, and decides that it is 
enough, and that it is time to enjoy what he has and what 
can be reproduced and refined with a minimum of alienated 
labor: not the arrest or reduction of technical progress, but 
the elimination of those of its features which perpetuate 
man’s subjection to the apparatus and the intensification of 
the struggle for existence — to work harder in order to 
get more of the merchandise that has to be sold. In other 
words, electrification indeed, and all technical devices 
which alleviate and protect life, all the mechanization 
which frees human energy and time, all the standardization 



Solidarity gi 

which does away with spurious and parasitarian “personal¬ 
ized” services rather than multiplying them and the gadgets 
and tokens of exploitative affluence. In terms of the latter 
(and only in terms of the latter), this would certainly be a 
regression — but freedom from the rule of merchandise over 
man is a precondition of freedom. 

The construction of a free society would create new in¬ 
centives for work. In the exploitative societies, the so-called 
work instinct is mainly the (more or less effectively) intro- 
jected necessity to perform productively in order to earn a 
living. But the life instincts themselves strive for the unifi¬ 
cation and enhancement of life; in nonrepressive sublima¬ 
tion they would provide the libidinal energy for work on the 
development of a reality which no longer demands the 
exploitative repression of the Pleasure Principle. The “in¬ 
centives” would then be built into the instinctual structure 
of men. Their sensibility would register, as biological re¬ 
actions, the difference between the ugly and the beautiful, 
between calm and noise, tenderness and brutality, intelli¬ 
gence and stupidity, joy and fun, and it would correlate this 
distinction with that between freedom and servitude. 
Freud’s last theoretical conception recognizes the erotic 
instincts as work instincts — work for the creation of a sen¬ 
suous environment. The social expression of the liberated 
work instinct is cooperation, which, grounded in solidarity, 
directs the organization of the realm of necessity and the 
development of the realm of freedom. And there is an an¬ 
swer to the question which troubles the minds of so many 
men of good will: what are the people in a free society 
going to do? The answer which, I believe, strikes at the 
heart of the matter was given by a young black girl. She 
said: for the first time in our life, we shall be free to think 
about what we are going to do.